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Autism Spectrum Diagnosis Helped Comic Hannah Gadsby 'Be Kinder' To Herself

"In many ways I appear very good at being social," says comic Hannah Gadsby. "But it's an incredibly exhausting process for me." She found her autism spectrum diagnosis in 2016 helped put her experience into perspective.
Ali Goldstein
"In many ways I appear very good at being social," says comic Hannah Gadsby. "But it's an incredibly exhausting process for me." She found her autism spectrum diagnosis in 2016 helped put her experience into perspective.

Growing up, Hannah Gadsby always felt she was different. She struggled to read social cues, she had trouble applying for jobs, and spent a few living in a tent and doing farm labor. But Gadsby, who's from Tasmania, had always been funny. On a whim, in 2006 she entered a stand-up comedy competition — and won.

"I'd never held a microphone before. ... I'd never even been to a comedy show — but all of a sudden, I kind of knew what I was doing," she says. "As soon as I told my first joke ... it really made people engage with me, and I held the audience in my hand."

Gadsby embarked on a comedy career in Australia, but she still felt out of place. It wasn't until 2016, when she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder that things started to make sense.

"It shifted the way that I understood myself," Gadsby says of the diagnosis. "I was always operating on the false premise that everyone saw the world like I did."

Gadsby's breakout comedy special, Nanette, which premiered on Netflix in 2018, earned her a Peabody and an Emmy Award and started a broader conversation about comedy and trauma. In it, she describes the abuse she experienced in the "Bible Belt of Australia" as a queer woman, and why comedy might not be the right venue to talk about trauma.

In fact, in Nanette, Gadsby vowed to give up comedy. She felt the requirements of stand-up — the setups, punch lines, tension release — were inadequate for the material she wanted to cover. But she wanted to continue connecting with her audience. Now, in her new Netflix comedy special, Douglas, she grapples with her newfound success in America and shares her experience with autism.

"People on the spectrum ... sort of feel like an alien being dropped in from outer space, and you can't quite connect properly," she says. "Being on stage and making a room full of people laugh, felt like a connection I hadn't been able to establish in any other environment."

Interview Highlights

On the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Nanette, and how it started conversations in the comedy world about what comedy can and should be

The first time I performed it, I knew that I was putting something kind of electric out into the audience. ... And I was just blown away by how positive the response was overall, the impact of it. I didn't think it would be so successful. I just thought, you know what? I have to say these things, and I'm willing to sacrifice my career for that. I can move on. So I am surprised that it was so positive. But because it was so positive, it seems only natural that other comedians are going, "Well perhaps I should rethink." And I think that's healthy. I'm not saying that everyone should change the way they do things, but I think a bit of a shake-up is good.

On being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2016

I was getting a lot of things wrong, and the most difficult was my interpersonal life, because on stage in interviews, the boundaries and the rules of engagement are very clear. But once you step out of these things and you're talking to people, you're building relationships with people, there's so much more uncertainty, and I don't read the room nearly as well. I've spent my whole life really trying to study the room — that is one of my one of my special subjects. So in many ways I appear very good at being social. But it's an incredibly exhausting process for me.

So when I was diagnosed, it just gave me permission to be kinder to myself, to not always take responsibility for being a bit clumsy around other people, and allow me to start to tell people, "I'm clumsy, but I [don't] mean to be." And being more open about, "I need you to tell me what I did wrong, and then we can move on from there." Whereas, I would just get in a lot of trouble from my friends and whatnot for being insensitive. And it was kind of a double bind because I'm very sensitive and I'm very thoughtful, but I miss things that other people sort of go, "You should just know that."

On how being on the autism spectrum affects her sense of humor

My entire life I've made people laugh, and I've not always meant to.

It's incredibly helpful in the perspective I have, because I don't see things ... and process it in the same way as a neurotypical person, so there is an off-kilter angle to it. My entire life I've made people laugh, and I've not always meant to. Often I don't. Yesterday, I was walking my dogs and a couple stopped me from a safe distance and asked me, "Oh! What kind of dogs are they?" And I said, "They're Lagottos." And they said, "Oh, I've never heard of that." And I said, "Neither have they." And it was the truth, and I wasn't trying to be funny. I was just [thinking] my dogs haven't heard of their breed either, and I just said it out loud. They laughed a lot. And I had to just sort of backtrack and go over the conversation. ...

So often I'm sort of traveling down the path of my own logic, which is not always sort of immediately accessible, so that it comes across as funny. ... I'm a genuinely serious person. And people who don't like my comedy are quick to point that out — and I can't argue with them.

On growing up in a large family

The beauty of being in a large family for someone on the spectrum, though, is the sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of community is automatic. So in many ways, I was at an advantage because I had fully formed relationship structures. I had more difficulty once I went out in the world. ...

When you have a large family, there's routine by necessity and structure by necessity to wrangle so many kids. And we're in a small town, so there wasn't much flux in our existence, and so there were a lot of advantages to it. It was a time when a kid could just leave the house and be a bit feral, just spend time outside and talk to myself. I was able to negotiate that.

On why she studied art history

It was such a perfect way for my brain to learn about the world and understand the world. I get there eventually with reading and comprehension, but I'm slow. I'm really, really slow. But with images, I seem to get so much. I seem to be able to process an image at a speed and a depth and a nuance that I can't with language. And so studying art history was just a really powerful way for me to begin to piece together the puzzle of the world.

On experiencing homelessness for a time after college

Once I finished my degree, (it was a three year degree that took me five years), I didn't know what to do then. ... I was unable to navigate that without any sort of external structures and scaffolding, as I like to say. I struggle to fill in forms. I've never been able to apply for a job in the traditional [way]. I've always just picked up casual entry-level work. The older you get, the less easy that is, when you pop your resumé into place and they're like, "Why are you so old and have done so little?" So I sort of began to drift really badly.

I worked in a bookshop for a little while, and then I was a cinema projectionist. Then I traveled up to the north of Australia ... and from there, I found I couldn't actually hold down a job. I was unable to earn enough money and also navigate just the basic administration of life. I look back on that time, I feel quite sad. It's like I didn't understand that I genuinely needed help. I needed assistance. ...

So I became a farm laborer and I lived in a tent, and basically [had] no fixed address for a couple of years. ... But I had no safety net. I had no backup. I didn't see a future at all — and that's trauma. You're absolutely incapable of imagining a future, incapable of understanding what a dream is. ... That was always very confusing to me. I didn't understand how I got it all so, so wrong. This is part of the autism situation. ... Until I was diagnosed, I could never look back on that part of my life and make complete sense of it. I still struggle, and that is also an effect of trauma. There's no straight-line through trauma.

On being surprised by her own success

I do feel like sometimes when you hear a successful person sort of going, "Oh, this is a surprise!" You're like, "Yeah, but you worked your whole life toward this, so there's something." Like Taylor Swift, I'm not convinced that she's surprised. But I am genuinely [surprised] — I can't actually process that. I've just bought my first home. Like I own a home, and for someone who's been homeless, I can't believe it.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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