An unrealistic representation of autism: BBC’s Dinosaur misses the mark.
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
by Isla Whateley
From the creators of Fleabag, Dinosaur is a sitcom about an undiagnosed autistic young woman, Nina, entering the world of dating. Its pilot episode first aired on BBC One on Monday 7th June 2021.
Nina is played by Ashley Storrie, the daughter of Scottish comedian Janey Godley, and is autistic herself. Great, I thought! An autistic character played by an #ActuallyAutistic actor is still a rarity in the world of TV and film, which has been particularly emphasised after the controversy around Sia’s Music.
No copyright infringement intended. Image from BBC - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p09hbmhd
However, the pilot left me feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable.
I was like Nina for nearly 23 years of my life — an undiagnosed autistic woman. Yet I felt that my experience wasn’t well represented at all. I want to preface this by saying every autistic person is different. There’s a saying that goes if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. But there are some overarching things that the majority of late-diagnosed autistic women experience that this show has completely missed out.
I was diagnosed as autistic in October 2019, days before my 23rd birthday. This followed diagnoses of depression, anxiety and anorexia throughout my teens and early twenties, accompanied by an all-encompassing feeling there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
It was a relief to finally be diagnosed, and the start of a steep learning curve working out who I really was.
“You’re autistic, but you’re excellent at masking.” This is what I was told the day I got my diagnosis. Masking was the way I coped throughout childhood, adolescence and early adulthood being undiagnosed. Masking (also known as camouflaging) is artificially performing social behaviour that is deemed to be more socially acceptable, or hiding behaviour that might be viewed as unacceptable. People mask autistic traits to avoid negative social consequences like bullying, as well as to increase success at work and in relationships. The strain of masking can be disastrous — causing exhaustion, burnout and a deterioration of one’s sense of self.
Masking is much more common in women.
Research has shown that autistic girls (often subconsciously) camouflage their social difficulties from a young age, which is a large part of why women and girls tend to be under diagnosed, as there is insufficient knowledge of the gendered presentation of autism.
The thing with Dinosaur is that Nina doesn’t mask. She has especially poor social skills, to a cringeworthy extent. Now, for a woman in her twenties or thirties, who has gone her whole life undiagnosed as autistic, it is wholly unrealistic that she would have not developed at least some masking or camouflaging techniques to help her fit in. Although masking is harmful in the long-term, it is a survival technique used by the vast majority of those diagnosed in adulthood, and often used subconsciously.
Similarly, it is implied Nina hasn’t ever been on a date before or had a relationship. This is a harmful autistic stereotype that has been peddled again and again in media portrayals of autism. Autistic people are often affectionate, sexual and capable of expressing empathy in our own way. The majority of autistic people I know, myself included, have been in relationships and have healthy sex and romantic lives. Dating can be difficult though. There are lots of unspoken rules and ambiguities, which I personally struggle with a lot, and the show does a good job of highlighting how autistic people might struggle with this. Especially with dating apps in a Covid age.
Another praise I have for Dinosaur is the portrayal of sensory overload.
At various points in the episode, the background noise would get louder at times when Nina was stressed/anxious, and it showed her tapping her fingers or fidgeting (stimming). I became a lot more aware of my sensory sensitivities after my diagnosis, so to me this was a pretty good representation of the sensory issues an undiagnosed person may have or be aware of.
The show is named for Nina’s special interest, dinosaurs. Autistic people find comfort in intense “special interests”, that are often so absorbing they are the only thing the person wants to do or talk about. One of my biggest ones at the time of writing is houseplants. I cannot stop thinking, talking or wanting to tend to my houseplant collection which is about 30 plants strong currently. I spend my days on houseplant Facebook groups, looking for second-hand plants or those that need saving, learning about which plants are safe for me to have with a cat, and talking to fellow houseplant-obsessed friends. I love the routine of watering and caring for my plants and it brings me a lot of comfort.
Special interests can be varied, but there are some that are more stereotypical than others — such as trains. Many stereotypical special interests are associated with autistic boys and men. Dinosaurs is very male-coded, whereas it has been proven that a lot of women fly under the diagnostic radar because their special interests are more “socially acceptable” — for example fitness, celebrities or makeup — making the autism more likely to go unnoticed.
In a similar vein, a scene in Dinosaur shows Nina googling how to do makeup before her first date and being confused. While many autistic women don’t care much for makeup, for some it is their whole life. The winner of series 3 of BBC’s Glow Up, a competition for make-up artistry, is autistic woman Sophie Baverstock.
Finally, the show doesn’t use the word “autism” or “autistic” once.
By my count, “Asperger’s” is referenced once, and there are a couple of references to being “on the spectrum” in Nina’s monologue at the end. These are both problematic for a number of reasons. Asperger’s Syndrome is the diagnosis I would’ve gotten had I been diagnosed ten years earlier. It was taken out of the DSM in 2013 and now every autistic person gets a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It basically means that you are autistic but you do not have an additional learning disability, or that you are “high functioning” (here’s why functioning labels are bad). It’s also named after Hans Asperger, a Nazi, who basically sorted autistic children into those who could work and those who would be euthanised, with “Asperger’s” children being more useful to society. Having a character in a TV show about autism state he has Asperger’s is not helpful to anyone.
Whenever someone says the phrase “on the spectrum”, it says to me that they are uncomfortable with saying the word autistic or autism.
Which then further implies they are uncomfortable with autism. What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with me? In addition, in this same scene Nina says “aren’t we all on a spectrum?” Which, coincidentally, is something people have said to me when I’ve told them I’m autistic, because they can’t fathom that I am autistic. No, Karen, we are not all “just a bit autistic”. You either are or you aren’t, it’s a neurodevelopmental condition. It’s more like a colour wheel than a spectrum anyway.
So why has a show that sought out to be representative ended up being so… not? After some research, I learned that the writer, Matilda Curtis, is not autistic herself, but has an autistic (male) cousin. Hmm. Nothing about us without us, right? I’d be interested to learn how many autistic women (both late-diagnosed and not) were consulted during the development of the show. I do know that the casting for Nina’s character was an open call for a specifically autistic woman, and I actually auditioned for it myself last year — but having an autistic lead actor is not enough. Ideally, a show like this needs to be created by autistic people to have the best impact.
Despite all this, Dinosaur is still the best representation of autism in women we have on British television, and shows we have a lot further to go. It does make a concerted effort to show how Nina’s autism is actually a strength, because she is so honest and upfront (qualities I also have). But these positives don’t outweigh the harmful stereotypes it peddles.
If Dinosaur is picked up for a further series after this pilot, I really hope that some of these issues I’ve raised here are addressed with in-depth involvement from #ActuallyAutistic people from all walks of life. There are plenty of us who would love to be involved and help productions like this be the best portrayal of autism they can be.
Isla is a freelance journalist focusing on social issues, politics and current affairs and personal opinion. Bylines include @edinburghpaper, @Healthline @LGiU. Isla is also the social media manager for @ENRGDebrief. Isla is #ActuallyAutistic and you can find out more about them here — Isla Whateley. #bbcdinosaur #autismblogger