Mild spoilers ahead. While many TV shows and movies have featured characters who are autistic, a lot of them have struggled to get it right due to stereotyping, a lack of research or casting non-autistic people. In Netflix's Heartbreak High reboot, the complexities of being a young person with autism are explored with authenticity and respect, says one of the show's stars, Chloe Hayden.
The 25-year-old actor — who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD when she was 13 — plays Quinni, a bubbly teen with autism who loves fantasy novels, bright makeup, wearing Crocs and winning school competitions.
As Quinni evolves throughout the show, so does the audience's understanding of the challenges faced by young Australian autistic women.
A scene particularly reflective of this involves Quinni telling Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran) she is autistic, and Sasha appearing very taken aback, asking how she didn't already know Quinni was autistic, because "I’ve met autistic people" before. Quinni responds by saying she's "good at masking".
In just a quick on-screen exchange we've already seen the stereotyping and assumptions wider society often holds about autistic people, and the ways in which women with autism feel compelled to hide their true selves.
"One of the reasons we put that in was because I had conversations with the writers," Hayden tells Refinery29 Australia, "and they were like, 'What happens when you tell people that you’re autistic?' and I’m like, 'They don’t believe me because I don’t look like Sheldon Cooper and Rain Man and Shaun Murphy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I don’t look like that.'"
Hayden says that by Hollywood not casting people with lived experiences of autism, the industry is actually doing a disservice to the community and it's not a win for representation at all.
"The thing is, media has such a hold on us as to what we believe is real life. So, people see autistic people represented in media played by non-autistic men and they go, 'That’s what autism is'," she says.
"So then they see me and they’re like, 'You’re a young woman who knows how to speak and who can make eye contact and is doing OK for herself. You can’t be autistic, that’s not what my idea of autism is, therefore you cannot be autistic'."
The actor and activist says this experience isn't unique to her — it's felt by many others and this is why that particular scene is crucial in the eight-part TV series.
"I really wanted to showcase that in the series because that’s not a personal thing. I don’t know a single autistic person who hasn’t had someone say to them, 'But you don’t look autistic'," she explains.
"So, having that shown and having that said by this girl who Quinni is infatuated with is a really important thing to show. That is real life and this is the first time we’ve actually seen what a real-life autistic experience is like because it’s played by someone who’s autistic rather than someone who watched a 20-minute YouTube video on, 'What is autism?'"
"They're like, 'You're a young woman who knows how to speak and who can make eye contact and is doing OK for herself. You can’t be autistic, that’s not what my idea of autism is, therefore you cannot be autistic'."
The show explores what happens when Amerie creates a stir at school when a secret map charting all of her classmates' hook-ups is discovered. In an attempt to then address what they see as a cohort of hyper-sexual students, the school forces them into a sexual literacy program which the teens describe as "sex jail".
The discovery of the sex map also leads to a mysterious and very public rift with her ride-or-die Harper (Asher Yasbincek) and it's up to Amerie, along with the help of her new friends, to repair her reputation.
Similarly, the reboot strives to embrace multiculturalism but also attempts to go deeper with representation from LGBTQIA+ and First Nations communities to allow for more nuanced storylines around topics like racism and same-sex relationships that Australian TV is still relatively inexperienced in portraying authentically.