Anna Lina Litz

Claiming the Stage

Hannah Gadsby defies stereotypes through humour

Hannah Gadsby (*1978) is a successful Australian comedian and actor, known for her shows Nanette and Douglas, both featured on Netflix, in which she addresses topics such as trauma and abuse, as well as her autism diagnosis and experiences as an autistic lesbian woman. Her success in the performing arts through finding clear, visually descriptive and darkly funny language for talking about these experiences without sugarcoating has made her a celebrated example of autistic and LGBTQ+ representation, and she continues to speak out openly and clearly about the experiences and needs for support of autistic people whether or not they prove themselves in one way or another 'exceptional'. 


Hannah Gadsby at the London Storytelling Festival - Photo by Isabelle , found on Flickr . 

Refuting dismissal 

In an interview with The Guardian (which I would recommend reading in full), Gadsby stated that being an autism advocate is not some kind of joyful vocation, but rather a necessity in the face of the many misconceptions and stereotypes that still exist around the topic. 

Gadsby said that publicly sharing her autism diagnosis was initially greeted with a lot of dismissal: “I was told I was too fat to be autistic. I was told I was too social to be autistic. I was told I was too empathic to be autistic. I was told I was too female to be autistic. I was told I wasn’t autistic enough to be autistic.“ By openly being herself and speaking about her experiences, she is showing the world that autistic people can be any and all of these things, and in addition that, can be really, really funny! Sharon daVanport puts it best in an article on the Disability Visibility Project: “Autistic people have long been stereotyped as humorless and unimaginative. Once Hannah came out as autistic to the entire world, it was like all of us in the autistic community could finally shout from the rooftops, “SO THERE!” as we embraced her alongside fans from all walks of life.“

Embracing needs 

Gadsby has explained that family life in a small town in New Zealand made for a good childhood where she didn’t stand out too much. However, she wishes she’d received her diagnosis sooner: “I wish more than anything that I had known about my ASD when I was a kid, just so I could have learned how to look after my own distress, instead of assuming my pain was normal and deserved.“ Receiving her diagnosis later in life has finally helped her to understand her needs and be unashamed to communicate them: 

I am not afraid of pressing pause during a television show when I feel distressed. I seek out spoiler alerts to avoid getting panicked by unexpected plot twists. I leave crowded spaces. I switch off discordant music. I wear headphones at restaurants. I openly express my hatred of the saxophone and electric guitar solos. I don't allow important emotional conversations to take place in cafes with polished concrete floors.

Universal access to support: “It is a basic human right to have average abilities“

She also speaks openly about needing help and support as an autistic person, stressing that this help and support should be way more openly accessible: 

It is absolute bullshit that the only way I could access the help I needed was by accidentally activating some kind of exceptional potential I didn’t even know I had until I was nearly 30 years old. Please stop expecting people with autism to be exceptional. It is a basic human right to have average abilities.

In this way, she uses her platform to support others, making sure never to glamourise her autism, but to call for universal access to support and welfare instead. 

Claiming awkwardness on stage 

'On-stage Hannah unapologetically claims awkwardness, unmasking by establishing interactional difference.', Emma Robdale writes in a review of Gadsby’s new and upcoming show Body of Work. 'The stage is her space, where she’s in charge – a platform where she feels accepted and understood', and free to create performance art which Robdale describes as 'indisputably neurodivergent'. 


Hannah Gadsby's website:

Article in The Guardian: Hannah Gadsby on her autism diagnosis: 'I've always been plagued by a sense that I was a little out of whack'

Article on Disability Arts Online: Radical, autistic, queer comedian Hannah Gadsby returns to stage with 'Body of Work' 

Article on Disability Visibility Project: Interview with Hannah Gadsby on autism, accomodations and performing live