Hannah Gadsby on her memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette, and how her autism diagnosis changed her life


Hannah Gadsby’s memoir Ten Steps to Nanette opens on the stage of a posh Hollywood garden party at actress Eva Longoria’s house.

Celebrities line up to talk to Gadsby, whose Netflix comedy special, Nanette, just hit the world.

But the world-famous comedian pulls herself out of a conversation with famed singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe to survey the unearthly green lawn beneath her feet.

It’s an immediate glimpse into Gadsby’s brain, where thoughts and ideas bubble up – often colliding abruptly with the real world.

“My world is so different from what it was five years ago. I can’t explain how different it is,” she told ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.

She references not only the worldwide success of Nanette and her follow-up show, Douglas, but also her diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and ADHD in 2017.

“It was an eye-opening thing for me, to start to understand that you think differently,” Gadsby said.

‘Start at normal pace’

Ten Steps to Nanette details Gadsby’s quest to understand his own biology, beginning in his conservative, remote hometown in northwest Tasmania.

Her childhood and teenage memories have jagged edges, often tinged with self-loathing and confusion about her sexuality and neurodiversity.

“At the time, I didn’t know women could have autism — it’s not part of the popular conversation,” she says.

After decades of mental health struggles, the diagnosis came as “a revelation”.

“Once you get the diagnosis, especially if you’re diagnosed later in life, it’s no surprise,” says Gadsby.

“It gave me more solid ground to stand on.

“Before my diagnosis, I was just trying to figure myself out in front of an audience, and now I can just sit back and relax and think, ‘Well, I’m atypical, so that’s where I start.

“It’s freed me up in a lot of ways. I’m not trying to twist myself to feel normal, I just stand up straight and say to myself, ‘Well, we can start with a normal step and go from there. ‘”

Gadsby recounts how she was told she was “too fat” and “too girly” to have autism.(Provided)

Much of the memoir is dedicated to explaining how Gadsby’s autism works: how the color blue (which she wears exclusively) calms her frazzled synapses; how the clink of a cup of tea hitting a saucer gives him tangible pleasure; how art history helps him make sense of a bewildering world.

“Of course, everyone on the spectrum has a different experience, but from what I understand, talking to a lot of people in my community, it’s like we’re thinking about ourselves inside our own body before how others perceive us,” she told ABC. RN.

“It often leads to bullying at school, but as you get older I think it becomes a bit more liberating as you come to understand yourself and the contortions you don’t want to bend yourself into anymore.”

She also writes, with painful clarity, about the challenges of negotiation and communication as an autistic person in a sometimes hostile world.

“We move into a world where every space demands every inch of our attention,” she says.

“We don’t think of the aesthetics of things in terms of our own safety; we tend to think of it as the icing on the cake, instead of just being an important nurturing environment for our mental health.

“I honestly think if people on the spectrum designed our physical spaces, there would be a lot less rage.”

Perform a cultural reset

For Gadsby, creating Nanette was a process of working with her autism and ADHD to present her trauma as a social and political statement.

In the last part of the book, she describes the various cues and safeties she invented to avoid meltdowns and shutdowns triggered by the material she was exploring.

It was this courage and vulnerability that propelled her to superstardom after Nanette aired.

“The work I do on stage is pretty much [me] just learning on the job, and then I almost did a report and was like, ‘That’s what I’m learning right now’ – that’s definitely what Nanette was,” she says.

“That’s the spirit in which I approach new work, just trying to get on with living my life as best I can, and then reporting on lessons learned or not.”

Gadsby in a navy and black suit stands on stage at the microphone with abstract blue and white patterns projected behind her.
In Ten Steps to Nanette, Gadsby describes how she learned to listen to her body on and off stage, so she could safely revisit traumatic events from her past.(Provided: Netflix/Ben King)

It can be difficult for her family, some of whom first learned of her past abuse during a live broadcast.

“From the moment I started doing comedy, I was exploring my personal life, especially growing up,” Gadsby says.

“[My family has] grew up with me, from the smallest stakes, in front of 10 people on the outskirts of Adelaide, to the Sydney Opera House, beaming around the world.

“It’s a constant conversation we have, we’re definitely a lot closer. They’ve had to deal with some things, just like me.”

While those close to him (including new wife Jenney Shamash) are supportive, the comedian is no stranger to rejection.


“You just know that a certain part of the community isn’t going to benefit from your very existence, and there’s not much you can do about it,” she says.

“It is enough to work on those who have an open mind and a caring heart.”

It’s a level of maturity and self-knowledge that Gadsby says would impress his younger self.

“I always feel like if I went back in time, I’d be scared to death. Me, as a kid, I wasn’t ready to know what I know now.”

A moment for diverse voices

In Ten Steps to Nanette, Gadsby explains how the intersection of his homosexuality and his autism is the cornerstone of his identity.

After all, she grew up in an area infamous for its homophobic vitriol, in a state where homosexuality was illegal until 1997.

Comedian with short hair and glasses holding a microphone and gesturing with his hand.
Douglas, like Nanette, offers a searing critique of heteronormative patriarchy.(Provided: Netflix/Ali Goldstein)

She is happy to see more diverse stories told in art and media, but quickly recognizes that her position is privileged.

“I think the more voices the better, and we’re really living that, especially with queer representation. We’re seeing a real moment for a wide range of autistic voices, which is encouraging.

“I don’t think the comfort that I feel is necessarily available to a lot of people on the spectrum. I think there’s [are] a lot of people who are undiagnosed, and certainly the queer autistic community is really underserved.”

As for the future of diversity in comedy, Gadsby is a realist.

“I don’t think comedy will get there without the rest of the world getting there. And I don’t see that happening in my lifetime,” she says.

“I feel like it’s just something we have to actively pursue, with no hope of ever seeing it.

“It’s a bit of a sad place, but it’s also an empowering place because you can just put your head down and carry on.”

Hannah Gadsby spoke with Mon Schafter for ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books, a live writers festival featuring interviews with the writers you love. Listen to all conversations on the ABC listening app.


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