Life & Culture

Dramatic? No, I'm autistic

When Sara Gibbs was diagnosed with autism at 30 it explained so much, she tells Gaby Wine


I always joke that I was misdiagnosed as Jewish,” laughs Sara Gibbs part way through our interview. It’s one of a number of excellent jokes, befitting someone who writes comedy for a living.

We’re talking about her experience of growing up with autism, but discovering she was autistic only when she was 30, three years ago.

Gibbs is great company, highly articulate and very funny. She is chatting animatedly over Zoom from her living room, apologising for dabbing her eyes, which are sensitive to the light coming though the tiny gap in the curtains. “Usually, it would be almost pitch black in here, so my eyes are watering and watering and watering.” After our interview, she will need to take a rest.

Hypersensitivity to sensory input, frequently experienced by autistic people, is one of the challenges Gibbs describes in her memoir, Drama Queen which is published this week. The book, which is both funny and fascinating in equal measure, stole its title from people’s perception of Gibbs. “When you’re going through sensory stuff — food aversions, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity and smells, people perceive you as always complaining. People thought I was just spoilt or lazy or couldn’t be bothered.”

Another response to sensory overload is what Gibbs describes as “my compulsive talking”. Although a brilliant orator, she says that her running commentary wasn’t always appreciated by everyone, not least former colleagues. “After a day of working under fluorescent lighting, I couldn’t think straight, so I wasn’t in control of what was coming out of my mouth or how much I was talking. My compulsive talking would get worse the more tired I was.”

The extent to which her garrulousness grated on her workmates became apparent to Gibbs only during her first appraisal, which she describes in squirm-inducing detail in the book. “I thought I was getting on really well with everyone and then suddenly, they were smiling politely and saying nice things to my face, but they hated me. I was blind-sided,” she recalls now.

Total honesty, a frequent trait of people with autism, was why she found it impossible to navigate the unspoken social rules at work. “I couldn’t understand where that invisible line was and how I just kept crossing it.” Conversely, her directness means she has always felt very comfortable in Israel, the birthplace of her late father and where Gibbs lived until she was eight months old. “You know where you stand with Israelis. There’s not this polite veneer masking disapproval. Israelis would say, ‘Sara, shut up! Sara, di!’, which means ‘Enough!’. My dad did once shout that to me in a public place in England to the horror of surrounding mums.”

Gibbs’ memoir explores the volatile relationship she had with her late father, who, while loving, was also prone to angry outbursts. He once smashed a plate and its contents against a wall when he lost his patience with his daughter’s incessant chatter. “It was really hard writing about my dad because he is no longer here so he doesn’t have the right of reply, but I also don’t think I would have written this book if he was still here because I don’t think there would have been any way to write about that relationship without massively fracturing it.”

In hindsight, Gibbs thinks that her father was probably also autistic, saying his temper might have been “partly down to sensory overload. After a long work day, I’m shut down and if somebody tried to chatter at me when I was just trying to eat my dinner, I would probably explode as well.”

Her relationship with her mother has always been far more harmonious, although the latter is plagued with guilt, knowing she would have done things differently had she known earlier about her daughter’s autism. “Our relationship is very different now that she understands that I’m not being deliberately difficult or putting things on.”

It was a relative with an autistic child who suggested to Gibbs, by then 30, that she might be autistic. “I remember being really offended because I thought that meant I was socially inept or I was a robot or that I was good at maths, which was the most offensive thing!”

But when she undertook a self-assessment “it was like someone had specifically written a checklist about me. It was as if my life was a deck of cards. With everything I read, I was turning over a memory and seeing a whole undercurrent to this memory that I hadn’t understood.”

Initially, she was elated to finally have a reason for her sense of otherness, as well as at the discovery of a supportive online community of other autistic people: “It was like meeting all your siblings for the first time.” But after a clinical psychologist confirmed her self-diagnosis, Gibbs hit an all-time low. “My whole life, I’d been trying to be normal and now I wasn’t going to be. It was this grief, not so much that it wasn’t going to happen, but that I had wasted so much time trying to be something I was never going to be.”

The diagnosis also led to the realisation that she wouldn’t ever have children due to suffering from the chronic pain condition, fibromyalgia. “Because I’m autistic, the way I experience pain is much more extreme than other people and it wears me out. On a bad day, I can’t take in a pinprick of light. I can’t take any noise. How would I cope with a kid running round? I was heartbroken because it didn’t feel like a choice.”

Her husband John, whom Gibbs describes as “a saint”, has accepted their situation and is utterly devoted to her. “If you dreamed up a husband, you couldn’t have come up with a better one.” He takes care of “all the life admin” so Gibbs can put her energy into writing.

Having already written for Radio 4’s Dead Ringers and The News Quiz, she is currently working on two sitcoms and “a very, very, very Jewish book”, which includes an autistic character. “Any relation to people living or dead is coincidence of course.”

Growing up in East Grinstead, the family was culturally Jewish, with occasional shul visits. “Socially, being Jewish probably saved me. I met my best friend at synagogue.” At Exeter University, she ran the Jewish Society and found a ready-made second family at the local synagogue. “I felt so welcome there. It didn’t matter that I was weird because everybody was a bit weird. It was Jews in Devon so you really were a fish out of water.”

Which brings us back to her joke about being “misdiagnosed as Jewish”. Her bluntness, instead of being picked up as autism, was, she thinks, put down to her Jewish and Israeli background. “I think that being Jewish was maybe a barrier to diagnosis of autism in some ways.”

The eventual correct diagnosis has led to Gibbs becoming “an accidental activist” for autistic people. “I never intended to become someone trying to lead any charge, but by virtue of who I am, I have a platform and an opportunity to tell a story and educate people. So I’ve chosen to use it.”


Drama Queen: One Autistic Woman and a Life of Unhelpful Labels is published by Headline this week

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