Critics of Hannah Gadsby Don’t Understand Autism

Being a “high-functioning” autistic myself, I’ve seen firsthand how people can mistake austistic behavior for veiled narcissism

Sarah Kurchak
GEN
Published in
5 min readJul 30, 2019

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Hannah Gadsby speaks onstage during the FYSEE Hannah Gadsby conversation and reception at Raleigh Studios. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

AtAt one point in Douglas, the new stand-up special from Hannah Gadsby, the comedian addresses a common misconception about her recent autism diagnosis. “I have high-functioning autism and it’s a terrible thing to have,” she says, “in that it gives you the impression that you are functioning highly.”

That statement, though seemingly honest and benign, was enough to irk New Yorker critic Hilton Als. In his review of Douglas, Als posits that Gadsby is invoking her autism to insulate herself from criticism: “Of course, this confession silences or nearly silences any criticism you may have been harboring: How can you criticize that?” he writes. He seems to believe that autistic people are granted a level of consideration and patience as a result of our neurology, and that we can exploit that to evade judgement.

Being a “high-functioning” autistic myself, I can assure you that most of us are not in the habit of playing offensive defense with our neurology. Far from granting us leeway, disclosure about autism often leads to increased scrutiny. When I started opening up about my diagnosis, the most common response I received was “I hope you don’t start using this an excuse.”

This lack of awareness about the basic realities of autistic existence is apparent in many of Als’ reflections on Gadsby. Als writes that Gadsby is “more interested in performing truthfulness than she is in the truth of her performance,” and says her “solipsism masquerades as art.” For austistic people, that’s a familiar critique: Our sincerity is often found lacking by outside observers, and we’re often accused of self-absorption. When Als posits that the content of Gadsby’s work would be better “if only she could figure out a way of making her rage less pedestrian, of deepening her stories through metaphor, of rendering her tales more general without losing specificity,” I can’t help but think of all the times we’ve been accused of being too literal or lacking in empathy.

When I started opening up about my diagnosis, the most common…

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Sarah Kurchak
GEN
Writer for

Author of I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder (April 2020, Douglas & McIntyre). Covers autism and pop culture. Loves wrestling.