Heartbreak High’s representation of autism

Warning: contains mild spoilers for the new season of heartbreak high.

There was a lot of fuss surrounding the recent premiere of heartbreak high on Netflix, and for good reason. One of the streamer’s biggest Australian productions to date, the re-imagining of the 90’s Australian TV classic has everything you would expect from a modern day teen drama series sex education or euphoria: a outstanding young cast, themes of class segregation, LGBTQ+ positive storytelling, candid depictions of addiction and mental health issues, and of course, a huge amount of sexual discussion and activity that would make even the most forward-thinking parent nervous.

Actress Chloe Hayden plays Quinn

Actress Chloe Hayden plays Quinn “Quinni” Gallagher-Jones in the Netflix reboot of Heartbreak High.Recognition:Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

But there’s one standout factor in the new series that has largely flown under the radar: the character of Quinn “Quinni” Gallagher-Jones. On the show, Quinni has her own social circle, she’s started dating, she’s had her struggles, and most importantly, she has a respectful level of teenage angst that everyone her age should have. But Quinni is so much more than all of that. She is also the first truly accurate portrayal of a young autistic person on the Australian television landscape.

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At a time when singer Sia can write and direct a film riddled with stereotypes that reinforce society’s negative and inaccurate perceptions of people on the spectrum, the notion of young autistic people seeing a character like Quinni on their screens not only refreshing… it’s life saving. In a world where people like me are reduced to caricatures, seeing ourselves authentically represented is a game changer. This is the moment that autistic people like me have been waiting for decades. Better yet, it’s an accurate portrayal of someone on the spectrum by an actor who is on the spectrum himself.

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Seeing Chloe Hayden, a brilliant young actress and disability rights activist, play Quinni on screen is an incredibly joyful, but also a bit painful experience. Being on the spectrum herself, it’s clear that the amount of real-world experience she adds to her performance is immense. Scenes in which Quinni feels overwhelmed just sitting on a bus or at a party while forcing herself to hide her feelings in order to better fit in and not upset people show a pain that neurodivergent people know only too well.

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Especially the moment when Quinni revealed to her love interest, Sasha, that she’s on the spectrum was heartbreaking. Sasha was shocked and confused because her knowledge of autism was limited to those on the heavier end of the spectrum. The scene cuts deep as Sasha struggles to find a non-offensive way to start the “You don’t look autistic” conversation that all neurotypicals need to start (tip to all the neurotypicals out there: start that conversation not, ever).

Thankfully, the scene gets more positive as Sasha realizes what she did wrong and lists the personal traits of Quinni, who she loves, before the two kiss — a moment that has gone viral on social media.

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