The autism community can claim a new high-profile member: Daryl Hannah, who first came on the Hollywood scene in the early ’80s with iconic roles in Splash and Blade Runner. In the new issue of People, Hannah opens up about her autism and its impact on her career. The 52-year-old, who was diagnosed as a child, hid the disorder from movie executives. But her “debilitating shyness” prevented her from doing talk shows and attending her own premieres “not because I was above it,” she says, “but because I was terrified.”
So why pursue a movie career, something she did at 17? Hannah says that as a girl, “acting for me was about going to the Land of Oz and meeting the Tin Man. It still is.” But it also meant being the center of attention, which “always freaked me out.” Hannah was pushed even further into the spotlight by dating the likes of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Jackson Brown, navigating the possibly even-bumpier experience of love on the spectrum. More recently, she’s been linked to Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee.
While Hannah was diagnosed, it’s not uncommon for girls on the spectrum to fly under the diagnostic and/or societal radar, unless they also have cognitive or behavioral challenges like ADHD. Even though they have the same issues with social interactions, intense interests, and sensory integration problems as boys, either clinicians miss autism in girls because the latter present differently or because girls are “better able to cope with any social or communication difficulties.” This may at least in part account for the disproportionate number of boys who receive autism diagnoses.
“Girls can be overlooked because it is considered more socially acceptable to be shy,” says autistic advocate and education professor Elizabeth (Ibby) Grace, who blogs at tinygracenotes. Grace, who serves on the board of Special Gifts Theatre, a youth company in Chicago, says she’s “delighted” that Hannah found acting, which also “changed my life. Acting teaches you safe ways to connect with yourself and others and to express [yourself]. For me as an autistic young woman, it was a wealth of information, like a key to the world. It is almost like I learned to play myself, to transmit my authentic being in ways others can understand, and not be afraid to take risks understanding others.”
While Hannah continues to rock and “stim” incessantly, common autistic traits (see video of an interview she did in 1989), she says she has learned to navigate the disorder that had her childhood doctors recommending medication and institutionalization. (Her mother refused.) “I’m a grown-up now,” says the actress and environmental activist, who will speak out for causes she’s passionate about. “I’ve learned a couple of things that would’ve really made my life easier if I’d only known them 20 years ago.”
Her possible strategies? She has created a quiet life out of the public eye, acting sporadically (Kill Bill) and living off the grid, surrounded by a menagerie of animals, including two llamas and a rescue pig named Molly.