A review of the Autistic character Quinni in the Netflix show, Heartbreak High.
Representation of Autistic people has been very poor in the media. There are shows like the lead in The Good Doctor, Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory (not confirmed by the creators but who demonstrates stereotypes) Atypical (Netflix show) and of course Rain Man back in the 1980’s. All of these feature lead Autistic characters who are white cisgender males, which is not surprising given the history of clinicians only focusing on white cisgender Autistic boys dating back to 100 years ago. There are also shows like Love on The Spectrum, which I do not go near as I hear it infantilises Autistic relationships and mocks us for wanting these.
I was pleasantly surprised to see there was an Autistic character portrayed by an Autistic actor on a recent Netflix show called Heartbreak High. This show is based in Australia and focuses on a group of teenagers in high school as they explore relationships, sexuality and gender. The show has great diversity in terms of people of colour and LGBTQ+ people, as well as showcasing Neurodivergence with an Autistic character being in a key supporting role. Chloe Hayden is Autistic herself and she plays Quinni in the show. I was familiar with Chloe as I had seen her video blogs on YouTube over the years. It was comforting to know she had such a strong involvement in the creation of this character.
Throughout the 8 episode series, we explore Quinni’s Autistic experience. She can be very honest with her friends, carries her comfort items at school and info dumps about her interests. The scenes in her room at home portray a nice safe space, as seen in the picture above. In a great episode, we see the depth of Quinni’s interests when she travels far to attend a book signing by her favourite fantasy author. Quinni stims, expresses her Autistic joy, scripts conversations and even scripts apologises for her friends when they have hurt someone. In scenes where she has a meltdown, her best friend (Darren, played by James Majoos) displays the right way to help Autistic people during this. They offer her space and sit close by without using words or touching her. Darren stays with her for as long as Quinni needs, without judgement, and it is probably the most compassionate act I’ve seen towards an Autistic person in the media. I was very touched by scenes like this, as well as all of Quinni’s scenes, as an Autistic person myself.
Another piece that was great for Autistic characters in mainstream media is that we see Quinni develop a romantic relationship with another teenager at her school. This is done in a tasteful way and for once the Autistic person is not infantilised for desiring a relationship. The show also does not hold back on examining the prejudice that Autistic people face as we even see people like Quinni’s non-autistic girlfriend (Sasha, played by Gemma Chua-Tran) show their ableism as she can be invalidating of Quinni’s interests or for not being “normal”. Obviously these are things Autistic people have to go through throughout our lives & it is important to see this displayed on screen, with it highlighting how damaging this can be for Autistic people. Scenes like this will hopefully provide allistic audiences with better understanding of the impact their own words and actions can have on us, as well as learning how to be more compassionate towards Autistic people.
Other challenges of being Autistic in a neurotypical world are showcased as we see Quinni experience a meltdown in a restaurant. The scene is very immersive as it shows from Quinni’s point of view how an Autistic person can reach sensory overload in such environments. The sounds of plates and cutlery, other peoples voices, the smells, the ques of people, knowing where to sit or find a table, are so overwhelming for many Autistic people from the moment we step inside a restaurant. Quinni also explicitly states to her girlfriend that she masks, a common trauma response for Autistic people. In scenes like the restaurant she is unable to mask due to how hostile this place is for her & she struggles to project ‘socially acceptable’ responses such as making lots of eye contact like she displayed in previous scenes.
Towards the end of the season, after being dismissed by her girlfriend, Quinni experiences a huge meltdown on the day she attended her favourite authors book signing. Quinni planned the event for months, including the bus routes and times of travelling to the signing. Learning our routes to events in advance can be a big part of Autistic culture. Her girlfriend, Sasha, found the whole event too much & this was devastating for Quinni given how important and life saving our interests can be. When people we love and care about find our interests to be “too much” this can hit us hard. Following this meltdown, Quinni had entered situational mutism where she lost her ability to speak. She did not speak in the show for several days & would instead write to people on paper or draw pictures to them. This is a form of AAC (Augmentative & Alternative Communication) which is especially useful in times of situational mutism. It was really powerful for the show to portray this as AAC is important for so many Autistic people, especially nonspeaking and minimally speaking people.
Overall, Heartbreak High features a ground breaking portrayal of an Autistic character in the media. It is a breath of fresh air after seeing so many stereotypical Autistic character tropes that only further stigmatised us. Netflix has just renewed the show for a second season and I can’t wait to see this story continue for Quinni and all the other characters!
Chloe Hayden & her character Quinni can be great role models to Autistic people, especially girls and women. It is about time we see greater representation of Autistic people. Progress like this also allows for Autistic Culture to be promoted at a wider level. Quinni is further proof to the world that we do exist as a culture. We have Autistic joy, our own ways of moving, language, communicating, our own art. Society needs to embrace and nurture Autistic culture much like we are also hopefully working to embrace LGBTQ+ culture. Qunni is a character who belongs to both of these cultures as a Lesbian herself.
I hope more people find Heartbreak High and see such authentic Autistic representation. The more we move away from the likes of Rain Man and Sheldon Cooper, the better representation we will have.
Chloe also has a new book “Different, not Less: A Neurodivergent’s guide to embracing your true self and finding your happily ever after” It releases in the UK in January. Link to ordering the book in the UK can be found here. https://www.waterstones.com/book/different-not-less/chloe-hayden/9781922616180
Heartbreak High is now streaming on Netflix.
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