By Lucy Townsend
Saga Noren from the Scandinavian TV crime drama The Bridge has become an unlikely hero. Widely diagnosed by viewers as being on the autistic spectrum, she is lauded not just because she is a leading character with the condition, but – more unusually – because she is a woman with it.
She is blunt, doesn’t understand jokes and struggles to build relationships. She strips down to her underwear to get changed in the office without embarrassment, and asks and answers questions with often excruciating honesty. “Would you like the recipe?” asks her dinner host. “No, thanks, it wasn’t tasty,” comes her reply.
While the writers of The Bridge have never confirmed that Saga has Asperger syndrome – a form of autism – it has been generally assumed to be the case. Sofia Helin, the actress who plays her, has regularly referred to it in interviews. She researched the condition before filming started and has been sent letters and fan mail from people with the condition, as well as from the Swedish Asperger society.
But while people have been increasingly exposed to fictional characters with autistic traits in recent years – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, or Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – Saga stands out because she is a woman.
Autism was once described as a manifestation of an “an extreme male brain” – the theory being that maleness involved a predisposition for mechanistic or logical thinking. Paediatrician Hans Asperger first defined the form of autism which now takes his name after observing boys with regular intelligence and language development, who nevertheless displayed autistic traits. He originally believed that no girls were affected by the syndrome, although clinical evidence later caused him to revise this.
But increasing numbers of women are receiving diagnoses as adults.
Elisabeth Wiklander was diagnosed with autism in her late 20s. Exhausted by being turned away by doctors, she had packed all the books, articles and folders she had read on the subject in a large bag and unloaded them onto her doctor’s desk.
“I said, ‘I have read all of this. I know I have this condition, please listen to me,'” she says.
Wiklander had spent many years being ignored by doctors and psychologists, who couldn’t relate her symptoms to the type of autism that they knew. She was professionally successful (she is a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra), she was in a long term relationship, and is articulate. She had learnt to mask many of her more textbook autistic traits.
But her case is not unusual. Journalist Laura James received her diagnosis at the age of 46. A married mother-of-four, she had spent her life “always feeling different”. She says she had been “written off” as having anorexia (she would often forget to eat), anxiety and sometimes just as being “difficult”. Finally this summer a psychologist confirmed what she already knew – that she had adult Asperger syndrome.