I’m skeptical of TV shows with autistic characters. After such dreck like Parenthood, The Good Doctor, and The A Word, can you really blame me? So I was completely shocked to discover Heartbreak High.
Heartbreak High is an Australian high school dramedy available to stream on Netflix. I started the show looking for some soapy fun. I wasn’t expecting to see the best on-screen depiction of being autistic that I’ve ever seen. But the show delivered just that with Quinni Gallagher-Jones, a lesbian autistic character played by autistic actor Chloe Hayden.
The show kicks off when the students (and principal) of Hartley High discover a “sex map” in the school basement. (Yes, this is not a kid-friendly show.) Said sex map includes a number of crude comments about the alleged sexual exploits of Hartley High students. Quinni is accused of having an unusually shaped vagina.
Quinni immediately switches into full-on research mode. She takes to the Internet to research vaginas, in a sequence that many autistic people will relate to. At this point, Quinni is not explicitly identified as autistic on the show, but I recognized her as autistic right away and I suspect many other autistic viewers will as well. To her relief, Quinni discovers that there is natural diversity within genital shapes and sizes. When the school’s biggest jerk teases Quinni about the vagina comments, she strikes back with well-researched wit. This introduction to her character is both humorous and relatable.
A few episodes into the season, Quinni develops a crush on Sasha So (Gemma Chua-Tran). The girls go on a first date in a crowded restaurant. This scene is filmed beautifully. It captures Quinni’s confusion about where to sit, discomfort with sensory input, and difficulty concentrating on Sasha. Unsurprisingly, the date goes poorly, and later in the episode Quinni reveals to Sasha that she is autistic. Sasha’s reactions are also handled deftly. At first, she expresses skepticism that Quinni is autistic. Quinni quickly corrects Sasha, even adding a sarcastic comment: “Thanks, Sia.” (The episode was produced prior to Sia’s public announcement that she is autistic.)
After getting past this hurdle, Sasha and Quinni become girlfriends. Their relationship is both cute and realistically depicted. Despite their mutual infatuation, Quinni faces problems common to autistic people in relationships with non-autistic people. Refreshingly, these problems are not positioned as being entirely Quinni’s fault. Sasha is well-intentioned but clueless. She is over-protective of Quinni, and sometimes fails to understand Quinni’s perspective. Without villainizing Sasha, the show is sympathetic towards Quinni as she attempts to navigate the relationship.
In one episode towards the end of the season, Quinni has a big moment. The writer of her favorite fantasy book series is in town for a book signing. She’s been planning to attend for weeks. Every detail, including her turquoise wig for cosplay purposes, has been planned to perfect. However, Sasha invites herself on the expedition and completely disrupts Quinni’s plan. Everything about the scenario feels relatable: Quinni’s excitement at being among other fans, her discomfort at changes in plan, and her heartbreak when Sasha just doesn’t get the book series she loves. The fallout from these events is handled deftly and realistically, though it may be hard to watch for some autistic viewers.
Quinni’s relationship with Sasha isn’t her only meaningful relationship. She has been best friends with Darren Rivers (James Majoos) for years. Darren (who is nonbinary) understands Quinni and supports her. At times they act as a translator for Quinni, providing guidance to other characters on how best to support Quinni. The two characters’ friendship is one of the show’s strongest relationships, and is truly moving to watch. Quinni also integrates into the larger friend group that develops over the course of the season. Her challenges do not disappear, but with support from Darren and her two dads, Quinni is able to get through challenging situations.
In a media landscape which so often portrays autistic people as friendless, it is more than refreshing to see an autistic teenage character with meaningful relationships. Quinni’s lesbian identity and strong relationships with other queer people are another plus. Even though many autistic people are LGBTQ+, media depictions of autistic people have tended to be very male and very heterosexual. Quinni shows that it is more than possible to depict queer autistic people with accuracy and compassion.
The show frankly discusses topics that I’ve rarely seen broached on TV, such as autistic masking and the right of autistic people to take risks. Although there is no singular autistic experience, I suspect that many autistic people will find things to relate to in Quinni. To Hayden and the entire production team behind Heartbreak High, I say well-done. And I can’t wait for season two.