The Australian Teen Drama That Saw Me

Last week, I binged, of all things, the Netflix series Heartbreak High. As surprisingly to me as much as anyone, I enjoyed it overall—but whyever was I watching an Australian teen comedy-drama in the first place? You’d have to blame the British podcast, 1800 Seconds on Autism.

In the podcast’s first episode of its new season, they interview Chloé Hayden, an autistic actor who plays the autistic character, Quinni. Two things in particular stood out: the fact that Hayden actively was considered something of a co-author of her character, and the hosts’ indications that Quinni had been well-received by autistic viewers.

If you’ve been reading me for awhile you know that I’ve something of a dismal track record with autistic characters in fiction. Apple TV’s Dr. Brain was relentlessly hateful, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment was bewilderingly disappointing, and Amazon’s As We See It was full of abuse and disrespect about which we were meant to feel warm-hearted.

It takes a lot, then, to convince me to invest my time and attentive energy on any fictional accounts of autism. Given the podcast (which I’ve come to trust), I decided that maybe this time would be different, and especially I was interested in the show’s eventual depiction of Quinni suffering a meltdown, something for which in advance I made sure to know the episode it would be so that I’d be prepared for it.

Identification always was going to be at least somewhat tricky, as Quinni is a teenaged girl and I am a middle-aged man. As we say, though: if you’ve met an autistic person you’ve met one autistic person. Add in the fact that she’s a bright, colorful, queer, excitable, extroverted, autistic teenaged girl, though, and it became anyone’s guess.

So, yes: there’s a lot in Hayden’s particular portrayal of Quinni’s particular autistic feature set that doesn’t speak directly to me. That’s fine, of course, as direct identification isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying any given fiction.

I’m not going to relate or recap the whole series here, or even the totality of Quinni’s part in it. Really, what I wanted to say is that to whatever extent I could or could not relate to this or that aspect of Quinni, one thing hit me very, very hard.

Let’s talk, then, about Quinni’s meltdown.

Her story in this episode centers around a long-planned trip to a bookstore to see her favorite author. Everything she needs to do is down on paper, to make sure things go off without a hitch. Hitches come, though, in the form of her girlfriend, who accompanies her despite her own lack of interest (and dismissive attitude), mostly because she wants them to go to a party later for which Quinni doesn’t think she’ll have the energy, and then badgers Quinni into making a side trip to a gelato place where she’s faced with having to make a flavor decision and then her girlfriend gets distracted by running into someone she knows.

It was somewhere around this point that I said aloud to my television that this was a nightmare. While not depicted in the style of a horror movie, I very noticeably was experiencing it as one. My entire nervous system was activated.

Back on the bus, her girlfriend’s friend in tow, Quinni can be seen experiencing increasing stress from the sensory environment around her, including the two other girls talking across her. There’s a very specific moment here, right before she reaches down to get her headphones, when I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach.

It was the look on Quinni’s face.

I’d lived inside that face.

I’d been that face.

I knew exactly where she was inside her head. While for me this place mostly leads not to meltdown but to shutdown, nonetheless I’ve been where she was in that moment. In that moment, the fact that Quinni is a bright, colorful, queer, excitable, extroverted, teenaged girl and I am a laconic, gray, straight, quiet, introverted middle-aged man became irrelevant.

It was the first-ever time I’ve watched or read a moment of autistic fiction and felt seen. Felt understood.

(I should take a moment to note that this moment on the bus, autistics will recognize, is not the meltdown itself. That comes later, after the bookstore and after tensions between Quinni and her girlfriend come to a head, when Quinni is back in the safety of her bedroom.)

There’s a moment early on in As We See It where the caregiver to an autistic character urges and challenges him just to try to make it down the street to the cafe and back. Outside, it’s loud, and unfamiliar, and she’s pushing him on over the phone. It goes poorly, and he’s clearly in distress.

Later, it takes a whole other character, and a kid no less (not, you know, a caregiver who should know better) to think to just give the guy some headphones and sunglasses. The two of them proceed to take the bus across town together with no real difficulties. The caretaker, however and in fact, never does acknowledge this, and the entire thing is treated as if she’s doing yeoman’s work getting the autistic character to go out into the world like everyone else.

It was wretched, miserable, and it made me hate everything.

Fast forward to a year later, and here’s Heartbreak High, and Quinni. Here’s the little Australian teen drama that says it knows who I am, when the supposedly-adult Amazon drama didn’t have a fucking clue.

I’m glad you’re coming back, Heartbreak High. I’d never have expected this, but I’m looking forward to it.