Strong Female Character

About the Book

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER • “Witty, dry, and gimlet-eyed, this is a necessary corrective in a world where Autistic women are all either written off as quiet and docile, or erased entirely.” —Devon Price, Ph.D., author of Unmasking Autism

Scottish comedian Fern Brady was told she couldn't be autistic because she'd had loads of boyfriends and is good at eye contact. In this frank and surreal memoir, she delivers a sharp and often hilarious portrait of neurodivergence and living unmasked.

Finalist for the Porchlight Business Book Award • A Harper’s Bazaar Best Book of the Year

After reading about autism in her teens, Fern Brady knew instinctively that she had it—autism explained her sensory issues, her meltdowns, her inability to pick up on social cues—and she told her doctor as much. But it took until she was thirty-four for her to get diagnosed.

Strong Female Character is about the years in between, and the unique combination of sexism and ableism that so often prevents autistic women from getting diagnosed until adulthood. Coming from a working-class Scottish Catholic family, Fern wasn’t exactly poised to receive an open-minded acceptance of her neurodivergence. With the piercing clarity and wit that has put her at the top of the British comedy scene, she now reflects on the ways her undiagnosed autism influenced her youth, from the tree that functioned as her childhood best friend to the psychiatric facility where she ended up when neither her parents nor school knew what to do with her.

In a memoir as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Fern leaves no stone unturned while detailing her futile attempts at employment, her increasingly destructive coping mechanisms, and the meltdowns that left her mind (and apartment) in ruins. Her chaotic, nonlinear journey—from stripping to getting arrested to finding a lifeline in comedy to her breakout appearance on the Taskmaster TV show as her full, unmasked self—is both a remarkable coming-of-age tale and a dark but poignant tribute to life at the intersection of womanhood and neurodiversity.

Strong Female Character is a story of how being female can get in the way of being autistic and how being autistic gets in the way of being the 'right kind' of woman.
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Praise for Strong Female Character

“Strong Female Character is a testament to Brady’s quality of said character, her tenacity in the face of a world not yet ready to grapple with all she brings to it. New York Times
“Brady is very funny. But she responsibly and powerfully intends more than just a sad-but-humorous recounting of her experience... Though Brady is annoyed that we’re this far into the 21st century and she still has to explain all this, any reader of Strong Female Character will be glad she did.” Washington Post

Strong Female Character is a testament to the importance of self-knowledge. Fern Brady is a natural and engaging writer, weaving bleak episodes with moments of pure comedy as she reappraises crucial moments in her life through the lens of her autism diagnosis. Brutal honesty and a talent for storytelling combine to make an insightful memoir that’s not only very funny, but will no doubt provide invaluable moments of recognition for many readers.” ―Rachel Healy, The Guardian

“Fern Brady’s book is alive in your hands. Brave doesn’t cover it and I'm not sure what will. Fizzing with intelligence, it will hit you in the heart, lungs, and liver. You’ll laugh, cry, be still, and if you’re not autistic—by God you’ll learn. If you are autistic, you’ll be seen, heard, held, rocked, and loved here.” —Deborah Frances-White, author of The Guilty Feminist

“Glorious. Frank but nuanced, a memoir that doesn’t sacrifice voice or self-awareness. And it has brilliant things to say about being autistic and being funny.” ―Elle McNicoll, author of Show Us Who You Are

“So funny and brilliant.” ―Holly Smale, author of Geek Girl

“Fern’s book, like everything she does, is awesome. Incredibly funny, and so unapologetically frank that I feel genuinely sorry for her lawyers.” ―Phil Wang, comedian and author of Sidesplitter

“Of course it’s funny—it’s Fern Brady—but this book is also deeply moving and eye-opening.” ―Adam Kay, author of This Is Going to Hurt

“An absolute riot. I’m literally going to read it again once I’ve finished, and I’m a miserable’s a belter.” ―Frankie Boyle, comedian and author of Meantime

“Witty, dry, and gimlet-eyed, Fern Brady’s Strong Female Character is a necessary corrective in a world where autistic women are all either written off as quiet and docile or erased entirely. Brady offers a compelling, messy, highly resonant portrait of what masked autism feels like to experience.” ―Devon Price, PhD, author of Unmasking Autism and Laziness Does Not Exist
“It made me laugh out loud and broke my heart and made me weep...I hope absolutely everyone reads this, and it makes them kinder and more curious about the way we all live.” ―Daisy Buchanan, comedian and author of Careering

“Fern is a brilliant, beautiful writer with a unique voice and an even more unique story. Astute, honest, and very, very funny.” ―Lou Sanders, comedian and host of the Cuddle Club podcast

“An unflinching self-portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Strong Female Character

Chapter One

A couple of times a week I’d have long phone chats with my dad as he commuted the two hours back home from his job in London. It was on one of these phone calls that I told him something I had dreaded bringing up since I’d found out a few days before.

‘So I got diagnosed with autism on Tuesday.’

‘Who told you that?’ His tone implied disbelief.

‘A doctor at the Lorna Wing Centre who specializes in diagnosing adult women with autism,’ I said, already irritated that he thought someone had just mentioned it in passing or that I’d done an online quiz.

‘Oh right. Traffic in London’s mental, eh?’

(One time my granda had had his leg amputated and Dad mentioned it as breezily as you would if you were making small talk about the weather: ‘Granda’s in hospital and we think he’s getting his leg cut off.’ This was followed by a call the next day with a matter-of-fact ‘Well, Granda’s deid.’)
I paced back and forth around the kitchen trying to keep my cool, my phone still pressed to my face.

‘You know, I actually had a dream where I told you about the diagnosis and you were so uncharacteristically compassionate and nice about it that I woke myself up laughing.’

‘Oh right. I had a dream that there weren’t enough blankets on the bed, and I asked Julie to put more on ’cause I was freezing.’

I began to load the dishwasher while he continued telling me about his dream, oblivious to my lack of interest. I waited for him to finish before I said: ‘Well, they say autism can be inherited from one parent, so I guess that’s answered the question of which one.’

‘Who? Your mother?’ he asked in earnest.

I slammed a knife into the dishwasher in frustration.

‘Are you kidding me? It’s you! It’s you, ya maniac! Have you ever noticed you’ve no ability to read social cues or people’s emotions?’

Dad and I were similar in that we’d both run into trouble at work for pointedly telling people when they were in the wrong. We both had odd ways of communicating.

I tried to picture his response. I knew he was driving calmly, glancing blankly at the satnav, totally unbothered by any of it.

Mildly, he added, ‘I dinnae even know what a f***ing social cue is.’

‘Right. Well, it’d be like if your daughter phones you up and says she’s just been diagnosed with autism, a normal person would go, “Oh, and what’s prompted you to get diagnosed? How do you feel? Are you okay?” You know? Any kind of response like that?’

I was shouting now. I liked talking to my dad because whereas I had to tiptoe around my mum’s unpredictable moods, I could shout at him and his emotional response would still be flatlining.

‘Well, I hope they went up and arrested your mother.’

I didn’t know why I kept putting the same information into this computer and waiting for a different output. He wasn’t capable of it.

‘Why would they do that? Mum’s feeling guilty about it, about how yous never got me help when I was younger.’

‘She’s the bloody autistic one!’ Dad is now throwing the word around joyfully, like a child who’s discovered a new swear word.

‘I don’t think so. She’s had a pretty normal, human response about the whole thing and been dead helpful.’

‘Right,’ he said, sounding distracted. I could tell from the change in tone he was checking his texts.

Actually, Mum had been crying a lot since taking part in the assessment. She was full of guilt and had been going over and over how obvious my autistic traits were: like not wanting to be held or cuddled as a baby; or having special interests, such as teaching myself Danish when I was eight; or having violent meltdowns over the sensation of my own clothes on my skin. She felt bad the signs hadn’t just been missed but were viewed as me being deliberately difficult. Growing up, I’d been told repeatedly that I was very, very clever but also very, very bad—and yet neither of my parents understood why I now enjoyed doing a job that involved people alternately cheering or booing at me.

‘I’m still waiting for you to say one normal thing about this, Dad. There’s still time.’

I could hear the cogs turning in his brain on the other end of the phone while watching the satnav.

There was a pause.

‘. . . What did you have for dinner tonight?’ he offered.

I leaned my forehead on a kitchen cupboard, opening and closing a drawer I’d smashed repeatedly over the years and had never been right since.

‘Pad Thai.’

‘Never heard of it.’

About the Author

Fern Brady
Fern Brady's caustic wit, exceptional writing and electric stage craft have made her one of the UK’s hottest comedy stars. She has performed in twenty countries including at Montreal’s Just For Laughs and Melbourne Comedy Festival. She regularly appears on British TV shows including Live at the Apollo, Taskmaster, Roast Battle and the Russell Howard Hour. She is currently on a world tour for her Autistic Bikini Queen show. More by Fern Brady
Decorative Carat