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21 November 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 5:43am

Anne Hegerty on I’m a Celebrity: Should reality TV producers take autism into account?

Currently struggling in the jungle, The Chase quiz star was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 2003.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Stern but likeable, with a fierce general knowledge, the schoolmarm-ish icon of The Chase quiz show Anne Hegerty (aka “the Governess”), has strayed from her comfort zone into the jungle on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.

The 60-year-old’s on-screen persona on the quiz show that found her fame is popular with audiences, and reality TV seemed like an obvious next step.

However, the first episode made for uncomfortable viewing. Fans tweeted with concern about her anxiety and distress as they watched Hegerty break down in tears at the Snake Rock camp, where task losers have to live on rice and beans and sleep on the floor.

“I’m just really, really close to saying I can’t do this,” she said on the show, crying, as the other participants rallied around her. “It was just not supposed to be this shitty.”

She was also visibly shaken and upset when the public voted for her to endure a “Monstrous Monoliths” Bushtucker Trial (the programme’s gross-out endurance tasks usually featuring insects) – an ordeal she bowed out of after getting covered in slime and mealworms – and wept before she set out for the task.

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“I’ve had a really tough time,” she said later in tears. “I’ve been struggling.”

Hegerty has also opened up about her autism on the show – she was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2003 at the age of 45 – telling her fellow contestants that 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 we can see a thing being done and know how to do it, and I kind of have to line the mirror neurons up in my head and go this, this, this… It doesn’t have to be the same all the time but I actually have to work it out beforehand.”

She later told the cameras that she is “never quite sure” if she is able to “pick up on social cues” – autism covers a range of conditions that generally affect someone’s social interactions and communication – and “I just get overwhelmed with all the things there are to do”.

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During an interview before entering the jungle, Hegerty also opened up about feeling “different” growing up:

“When you’ve grown up always knowing that there’s something that seemed to be different about you from most people – and not being able to understand until my mid-forties that what we were talking about here was autism – I’ve had to learn an awful lot about myself and what I can and can’t do and what I can or can’t cope with. At the moment I’m quietly panicked.”

Hegerty has also spoken about how her Asperger’s puts her off going on holiday (“I like to have my own kitchen so I can cook and a washing machine so I can do washing. The things you can’t get in a hotel”), and having people round to her house, as it’s so cluttered. She also experiences “face-blindness”, making it difficult to identify people she’s met.

During a TV interview last year, Hegerty said: “People say to me, ‘I understand you suffer from Asperger’s’ or ‘You suffer from autism’, and I’m like, ‘No, I have Asperger’s, I suffer from idiots. Because, you know, there are people who don’t always understand how it works or how to relate to me.”

As this comment suggests, autism is not a mental health problem or a learning disability (although both mental illnesses and the latter can be more common among those on the autism spectrum) – and this is at the heart of the debate over whether reality TV producers should account for autism.

Hegerty fans – and even her own uncle, Richard – appear torn over whether someone with her condition should be put in such a stressful environment for entertainment.

ITV told her ahead of the show to warn them if she needs support, and Hegerty is willingly participating, but how much more intervention should there be? After all, Love Island 2018 contestant Niall Haslam left the programme early on, later revealing his Asperger’s as the reason.

“For far too long I have suffered in silence and not acknowledged a massive fact about my life which going into the villa has led me to finally realise and accept,” he wrote in an Instagram post.

These days, most UK reality TV shows include psychological assessments of potential contestants beforehand, and a qualified professional or team on-hand throughout the show to look out for their wellbeing.

Encouraging people’s bravery and enthusiasm without tipping over into exploitation is a tough balance for these people to strike.

“It’s really a question of: Are they so vulnerable that the process is going to be detrimental to them? Or is this something they can do but that the programme-makers need to be aware?” explained Lynn Greenwood, a psychotherapist who has been doing psychological assessments for high-profile reality TV programmes in Britain for 15 years, when I asked her about the process earlier this year.

She’s found that “production companies are [becoming] more psychologically aware” of contestants’ needs in the past decade. “Because there’s always this tension between ‘We really want this person, they’re going to be great’, and ‘They’re too vulnerable’. I think there is more negotiation [now].”

While a programme is on-air, people like Greenwood will be “informally on-call”, she told me. “If someone’s wobbly, the programme-makers will put them in touch with me, or I will help the people making the programme contain a situation.”

“I think Anne’s doing a fantastic thing to raise public awareness and understanding of the condition,” says Tim Nicholls, head of policy at the National Autistic Society.

Featuring people on reality TV who happen to be on the autistic spectrum is positive for raising awareness, but only if production companies are sensitive about the condition.

“What we’d be looking for is that there is support around her, and to make sure that the production team and everyone involved in the making of the show has talked to Anne to make sure they find out a little bit more about her needs,” advises Nicholls.

“The whole purpose of the show is it’s quite overwhelming, there’s a lot to do, and that could present lots of challenges for Anne in particular as an autistic person. Autistic people may have particular sensory sensitivity around light, sounds, touches, all those things that are really quite common, especially as we saw last night during the Trials.”

Another balance for production teams to strike is one of representation with responsibility. Giving a contestant like Hegerty a platform to discuss her autism – something that gained so much audience interest on Monday night that it temporarily crashed the National Autistic Society charity’s official website – creates role models and positive representation for viewers.

Indeed, the mother of an 11-year-old autistic boy tweeted a picture of a letter he wrote to Hegerty, thanking her for going on the show. “Sometimes people are mean to me because I am autistic,” he wrote. “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.”

Although 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, there is little general understanding of it – especially as something that affects women and girls – and many like Hegerty are diagnosed late into adulthood.

So another upside to her appearance on I’m a Celebrity is how supportive her fellow contestants have been, according to Nicholls. “A lack of understanding can have a real impact on autistic people and their families,” he tells me. “And as a result of not feeling like they are understood, especially by the public, a lot of autistic people end up increasingly isolated. So what’s happening in the jungle is showing the real impact that a little bit of understanding can have.”