‘If you’ve ever been on a night out where you got blackout drunk and have laughed the next day as your friends tell you all the stupid stuff you said, that’s what being autistic feels like for me: one long blackout night of drinking, except there’s no socially sanctioned excuse for your gaffes and no one is laughing.’ – Fern Brady
Strong Female Character is the much applauded memoir of comedian Fern Brady, which chronicles her experiences of growing up with undiagnosed autism in a working-class family in Scotland. It is an unflinchingly honest and often hilarious portrayal that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you can handle gritty realism (and at times, this book is extremely bleak and difficult to read) then it is an absolute must. For anyone keen to learn about autism in women, and the many and varied ways we as a society fail this particular demographic, Strong Female Character should be top of your to-be-read pile.
Growing Up With Undiagnosed Autism at the Turn of the Century
Whilst hopefully we have come a long way since the late 90s and throughout the 00s when Brady was growing up, it is shocking to read how time and time again she was failed by her family, her schools, and the health service. The misunderstanding at that time about what autism ‘looked like’ led to her being labelled as difficult from an extremely young age and this, time and time again, was something she was punished for. These difficulties led to her spending time as an inpatient in a mental health facility as a teen and also to a period of homelessness and sex work, all of which she writes about with humour and candour.
Society’s Failure to Understand the Female Autistic Experience
One of the biggest things we can take away from the memoir is how poorly society deals with those who aren’t neurotypical. At one point Brady discusses how allistic people (those without autism) expect autistic people to change their behaviour to make them feel more comfortable, rather than the other way around. She points out that this is an incredible burden to put on people who may already be struggling to function in a world that is built for neurotypical people, and that with a little education we could do so much better.
The Harm Caused by Masking
She talks in depth about the need to mask her typically autistic behaviours (things such as stimming or discussing areas of special interest) in order to fit in. She says trying to read social signals or act ‘normally’ is like ‘having a computer which should only be running two or three programmes at once but forcing it to run up to ten.’ The effort that this takes of course leads to exhaustion, silent shutdowns, violent outbursts and self-destructive behaviour.
Strong Female Character is a true window into the mind of an autistic woman, albeit an extremely intelligent, incredibly funny one. It is a must-read for anyone who would like to understand neurodiversity in women and girls and for anyone who is keen to do better.