When comedian Fern Brady told her father she’d been diagnosed with autism during the pandemic, his response was to ask her what she’d had for dinner. This reply was characteristic of Brady’s dad, who didn’t know what a social cue was, let alone how to read them. From the outset of Strong Female Character, we understand that Brady’s family relationships play a significant role in her eventual diagnosis, which plays out in the narrative that takes you from childhood in Bathgate to Taskmaster and beyond. The memoir is brave, bold and funny, gripping you from the first page and refusing to let go long after you put the book down.
Brady began exhibiting symptoms of autism from an early age, but, like many girls, she didn’t fit autism stereotypes, so her meltdowns, special interest in languages and sensory issues were misdiagnosed. When Brady mentioned that she thought she was autistic to a psychiatrist as a teen, she was told she couldn’t be autistic because she was making eye contact and had a boyfriend. Growing up in a world designed for the neurotypical, she felt like everyone spoke a language she didn’t understand, particularly the girls at school and uni who rarely said what they meant and communicated in unspoken social code.
The memoir takes us through key moments in Brady’s life, including a stint as an outpatient in a psychiatric hospital, stripping while studying at the University of Edinburgh and her route into comedy. In Strong Female Character, Brady doesn’t hold back or shy away from difficult subjects. Whether it be the violent, furniture-destroying outbursts the comic struggles to control, becoming addicted to Xanax to flatten her moods or the emotionally and physically abusive relationships of her past, the book can sometimes be a tough read. But as you would expect from Brady’s searing wit, it’s also full of humour, including asking the doctor who diagnosed her if she had to add #actuallyautistic to her Twitter bio.
Brady’s story isn’t one with a neat, happy ending. There is no pill or quick fix for autism; it’s something you manage day by day. She doesn’t want to be the poster girl or ‘face’ of autism, but she can celebrate her strengths – her blunt and brutal honesty, lack of hangups about sexuality and intolerance of bullshit are something to behold. But she still comes up against obstacles in her work, whether triggered by fluorescent lights, touch or sudden loud noises or being unable to easily fall into the phoney chatter with TV execs. Nevertheless, the stand-up’s recent stint on Taskmaster saw her at her most authentic autistic self and hopefully more opportunities for Brady’s talent to shine will be become available following the book’s release.
Brady knew she was autistic long before she received her official diagnosis thanks to reading every book she could get her hands on and finding herself in the pages. I really do believe that many will pick up Strong Female Character, see themselves and feel less alone.