By Robert Moran
Anne Hegerty, the stoic Governess on Seven quiz show The Chase, has earned praise from viewers for speaking openly about her Asperger's condition on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!
Hegerty, 60, is currently appearing in the UK version of the reality hit, being filmed in Springwood National Park on the NSW north coast.
After admitting she was struggling in the season's first episode, Hegerty opened up to her castmates about her experience with Asperger's, which she was diagnosed with at age 45.
"It's an autistic thing, when you're trying to work out what to do... What neurotypicals have is a thing called mirror neurons, so they can see a thing done and know how to do it. And I have to kind of line the mirror neurons up in my head... I have to actually work it out beforehand," she said in a revealing exchange with actress Rita Simons.
Simons told Hegerty she didn't seem she had a problem with "picking up on social cues", a characteristic of the condition.
"Thank you, that's something that I've sort of worked on. As a teenager I was absolutely useless at it," Hegerty replied.
"There are things, if you saw my house you'd know there was something very wrong... And I just get overwhelmed at all the things there are to do," she added.
Later, addressing the camera, Hegerty said she appreciated the exchange.
"I didn't raise the autism issue - 'By the way, I have this interesting disability which you have to accommodate!' - I try not to do that. But if someone else raises it, I make it quite clear that I'm happy to talk about it," she said.
The scene drew a strong response from viewers, who praised Hegerty for speaking openly about her experience and dissecting the stereotypes associated with autism.
The UK's National Autistic Society also released a statement saying their website broke following the episode.
"We've loved seeing the outpouring of support for Anne Hegerty. We hope this will be the start of better representation for autistic women in the media and help everyone understand the diversity of autism," the statement read.
Hegerty, who has appeared on Seven's version of The Chase since 2015, has previously discussed her condition. Last month, she told UK talk show Loose Women that she was diagnosed in 2005, two years after seeing a documentary on autism on TV "that rang bells with me".
"I remember in my diary writing, 'I'm beginning to suspect again that I have Asperger's syndrome,'" she said.
Jenny Ryan, Hegerty's The Chase co-star in the UK, told ITV's This Morning of Hegerty's intentions in agreeing to appear on I'm A Celebrity.
"I can see that it's very stressful for her, but on the other hand Anne is a very determined woman," Ryan said.
"One of the things she was desperate to do was to go on the show and to show people who have ASD [autistic spectrum disorder] that anything is possible, that you can challenge yourself, to spread the word about the condition, the different ways it affects people, and the different ways that people who are neurotypical should react to people who have ASD."
How Anne Hegerty broke a website with just four words.
The website of the UK’s National Autistic Society broke this week, after being inundated with visitors seeking information. All it took, was a single, vulnerable exchange on national television, a moment in which a famous woman opened up about the challenges of living with Asperger’s Syndrome.
That woman was Anne Hegerty, known to most as The Governess, a formidably intelligent star of quiz show The Chase.
Currently appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (UK), the 60-year-old Brit told her fellow contestant about why she’s struggling on the series.
“It’s an autistic thing, when you’re trying to work out what to do… What neurotypicals have is a thing called mirror neurons, so they can see a thing done and know how to do it. And I have to kind of line the mirror neurons up in my head… I have to actually work it out beforehand,” she said.
When actor Rita Simons noted that Anne doesn’t “seem to have trouble picking up on social cues” – a common characteristic of the Asperger’s – she replied: “Thank you. That’s something that I’ve sort of worked on. As a teenager I was absolutely useless at it.”
Later speaking to the camera, Anne, who also appears on the Australian version of The Chase, said she welcomed the conversation. “I didn’t raise the autism issue – ‘By the way, I have this interesting disability which you have to accommodate!’ I try not to do that. But if someone else raises it, I make it quite clear that I’m happy to talk about it,” she said.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of Autism Spectrum Disorder that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Though often of above average intelligence, people living with Asperger’s can have difficulty expressing themselves and working out what others may be thinking.
Autism Spectrum Disorders are diagnosed four times as often in boys than they are in girls.
As noted by Autism Spectrum Australia, this is believed to be partly due to the fact that girls with ASD are often better at ‘masking’ their limitations in social understanding, communication and social imagination. They are also more likely to be misdiagnosed with conditions such as language delay, anxiety and avoidant personality disorder.
In fact, it’s common for women to reach adulthood before they receive their diagnosis.
That was precisely the case for Anne. Speaking to British chat program Loose Women in 2017, she revealed she was 45 when she learned she was living with Asperger’s.
“Around 2003 I happened to see a TV program about little autistic boys, and something about it just kind of clicked. I thought, ‘There is something about the way those boys are behaving that reminds me of me… and of me as a child,'” she said.
“I started reading about it and thinking, ‘That’s it. That’s what it’s been ever since I was a child.'”
Anne on I'm a Celebrity. Image: ITV.
While it explained many of her behaviours, including a difficulty multi-tasking, it also explained her incredible ability to retain and recall large amounts of information - a trait that secured her starring role on The Chase.
As well as 'breaking' the NAS website, Anne's openness about her Asperger's was praised on social media by other people living with the syndrome and their loved ones.
The mother of an 11-year-old British boy with autism tweeted a picture of a letter he wrote to Anne, thanking her for going on I'm A Celebrity.
“Sometimes people are mean to me because I am autistic. But watching you makes me see that other people can have autism too and maybe I can have a cool job like you when I am older," he wrote.