Talking With Dinosaur Star and Co-Creator Ashley Storrie — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM

I am cautiously pleased about autistic representation in the current streaming era, in which shows like the excellent Hulu series Dinosaur, co-created by and starring autistic Scottish comedian Ashley Storrie, are balancing out stereotype-laced series like Atypical. Dinosaur features Ashley as Nina, a Glasgow paleontologist (dino scientist) whose life is comfortingly routine-anchored—until her best friend and sister Evie upends everything with a surprise wedding engagement.

Storrie talked with TPGA about incorporating her own autistic experiences into the series, why she finds Nina’s oft-mentioned Real Housewives so compelling, how little non-autistic people understand the extent to which autistic people accommodate them, and why storytelling is so crucial for wider understanding of underrepresented groups.

[media description: Trailer for the Hulu series Dinosaur.]

TPGA: I wanted to thank you for your series Dinosaur, which was just tremendous. It must have taken a whole lot of thought to decide which autism topics to include and which not to include.

First I wanted to ask question from my colleague, Zack Budryk, who’s an autistic journalist in the U.S. He wanted to know: How do you feel like you are bearing the burden of autistic representation? And if so, how do you compartmentalize that to be funny?

Ashley Storrie: I definitely feel like there is a burden of representation, and I think that falls upon anybody who has the opportunity to represent a community that has been under-serviced and under-represented, because when we finally get a chance to be represented, everybody wants to be represented in that one thing and that’s really hard to do, especially with autism where it’s a spectrum.

And that it’s like a circle of needs and we all have different. I saw a nice TikTok where a lady said it was like a fingerprint where everybody is different and everybody’s autism is different. So to compartmentalize that I just tell myself that even if not everybody identifies with it, somebody will identify with it.

And for that person who’s maybe not felt seen in the past, that’s worth it for the people who watch it and say, no, that’s wrong. That’s not how my autism is. And I think we all have to have a little bit of grace and a little bit of compassion for creators who are just trying their best.

TPGA: Yeah, I agree.

It’s wonderful that Dinosaur is, in my opinion,  a fairly realistic take on one way of being autistic. Because I think there’s so often pressure to jam pack so much into one series.

But I appreciate also that it had an arc, in that at the beginning, it seemed as though your character was initially… you would think, well, Nina has no problems at all. And then by the end of the series, you can see that she has a meltdown and her family is yelling at her about everything they’ve done to accommodate her, her mother is telling her that she became a therapist for her—which is a huge burden and not something Nina asked for. And I was wondering if that was intentional, that the slow build towards showing all the pressures Nina is under as an autistic person coping with life, and how those pressures can mount.

Ashley: Yeah, I think it was, there’s certainly an intent there. When you want to tell a story. It’s especially good to kind of show at the beginning the status quo, so that when it’s thrown up and blown up, there’s more jeopardy.

So it certainly was an intentful thing to have Nina in the first episode, how she has it all together. She’s coping. And I think that’s autism as well. That’s why routine is lovely because you have the tools for that routine. It’s not just a rigidity of personality of “I like routine because I like routine.”

I like routine because I’m prepared for the things that are in my routine. So when that routine gets thrown off, I don’t have the tools to deal with this new thing rather than “I don’t like new things.”

TPGA: One of the hardest things that we try to get across about our autistic community members, because we have people who are able to hold jobs and we have parents of people who, like my own son, need 24 hour support. And when you have one example of autism representation, people get so angry about it not showing this and not showing that.

Whereas what we often try to focus on is autistic commonalities: So even though Nina has a wonderful job—and paleontologist would be the ideal for a lot of autistic people,  when her supports are not there in the way that she needs them, then she can’t cope. And I think that is something that is true regardless of what your individual autistic profile is like.

So I hope people will take that away as well, because another thing that we encounter in our community is parents who don’t understand why their “totally fine” autistic son or daughter is suddenly melting down. And we say, well, what changed? We also see so many autistic people who “should be fine” but are in constant crisis, yet if they just had a little more supports and routine in their life, things other people could help them with, they would be doing so much better. And I think that is a commonality that you should and that more people need to focus on.

Another thing that I thought was really lovely, and I wanted to ask if this was intentional or if this was just kind of the natural storytelling process, was when Nina and her co-worker Declan are having a conversation, and he tells you that other people who aren’t autistic (Declan’s autism is heavily implied) just don’t understand how much autistic people do to get through the day and to make non-autistic people comfortable—and the non-autistic people never even notice.

I mean, it was kind of in passing, but I thought it was also kind of a bombshell because I’ve never seen that in any kind of autistic media. And so I was wondering about the thought process and placement of that.

Ashley: That’s how I’ve always felt. I didn’t get diagnosed until later in life and I was trying my best every day. And I remember at school I would get report cards that said, “She just has to try harder. She just has to apply herself more.” And I was like, I am at the full tank, going for this. I’m trying my absolute best.

And I thought everybody was living like that. It’s like, you know, when they say dogs who are born in pain don’t know they’re in pain because they’ve always been in pain? Because I’ve always thought everybody was doing that. I thought everybody was getting up every day to try and be normal and struggling at it, and they were just better at it than me. They just had more aptitude and more focus.

When I started filming the pilot for Dinosaur, I had never done acting before. I had been in lockdown, so I had unmasked completely. I’d lost all of my skills for socializing, and I was really frightened. And I said to Sarah Hammond,  our executive producer—she also made Fleabag—I expressed all of these fears.

And she said, “Well, just don’t, don’t mask. Don’t pretend. We’ll accommodate you for the first time in your life, rather than you accommodating everybody else. We’ll accommodate you. We’re making a program about an autistic woman. We know you’re autistic. We’ll work out what that means. You don’t have to pretend anymore.”

And it was the most liberating and beautiful thing.

It was really important to kind of express that feeling of ‘we are trying our best. This is our best. And you’ll never understand that.’ But everybody in the crew understood it. It’s profound to be understood. It’s amazing to be understood. And that process was for me, very cathartic and very, very heartening.

TPGA: I appreciate that. And, relatedly, I thought it was great that in the process of everybody meeting [Evie’s fiancé] Ranesh’s dad, everybody was explaining that they also were all masking. All of them, right? And this isn’t just an autistic thing, even though autistic masking is a very specific thing, but everybody masks, right? Was that also very much planned?

strong>Ashley: Very much planned. It’s one of my favorite episodes to watch—not my favorite episode to film because it was a lot of little moving parts—but I really enjoy watching it. Because it might be on the nose if you already understand masking, but I think if you don’t understand it, it gives a sort of abstract perspective on it of this isn’t just an autism thing. I think we are just more aware of it. And find it a little bit more draining and it’s more of an everyday thing.

TPGA: What you’re doing with these scenes is wonderful,  because in order to change the public perception of autism, I don’t think it’s enough to have articles and books. I think we have to have more storytelling because I think stories affect people on a deeper level. I think they internalize stories more. Is that something you were aware of?

Ashley: I think that’s a true fact of everything. There’s a TV show called Reservation Dogs. I’m a Scottish woman who doesn’t know anything about the Native [American] community or the Native culture. And it was one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. But, to be a comedy that I have absolutely no contextual link to and still work and educate me and, to make me understand a community and to relate to a community. My Scottishness, I was like, I feel the same way about so many things.

It was great. So I think you’re a hundred percent right. I think storytelling is the best way to make people feel seen and to make people feel, to understand things. Kim’s Convenience, another great show. I don’t know anything about being a Canadian or a Korean Canadian. I love it. It’s a phenomenal television show.

TPGA: Last question: Do you actually watch The Real Housewives?

Ashley: Yes, religiously. I love it. I love reality television shows.  The line in Dinosaur where they say, “why do you love reality TV?” And Nina says, “because the people talk to the camera and say exactly why they did what they did after they did a thing.”

That’s a conversation I’ve had repeatedly with so many people, because they don’t understand why someone like me who is very academic and loves her books and her sci fi and so people wonder, how can you sit for seven hours and watch a bunch of women fight? And I love it. I learned about the mortgage crisis because of the Real Housewives of Orange County. I didn’t understand the mortgage crisis until that show. It educates you.

TPGA:  I’d like to thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been fantastic.

Ashley: Thank you.

Dinosaur actor and co-creator Ashley Storrie

Video transcription by Max Sparrow


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