By Nils Skudra
In recent weeks, I have begun watching the miniseries Annika, a Scottish crime drama revolving around Annika Stranhed (Nicola Walker), a Marine Homicide detective who investigates a series of murders in Glasgow, Scotland, while trying to navigate a challenging relationship with her rebellious teenage daughter. While her diagnosis is never explicitly referenced, the protagonist displays a variety of traits associated with autism, including a highly logical mindset and attention to detail as well as social difficulties with showing emotion and empathy, even as she is confronted with particularly brutal homicides. Because of this, I decided that the miniseries merited a film review since the case could be made for Annika being an undiagnosed autistic individual, which is especially significant since women tend to be diagnosed with autism at a lower rate than men, with the result that undiagnosed autistic women often do not receive the same level of attention or services accorded to officially diagnosed individuals.
The miniseries opens by introducing Annika, the lead detective of the newly created Marine Homicide Unit charged with investigating marine-related deaths in Glasgow. Their first case involves the discovery of a body in the Clyde River, killed with a harpoon. Annika displays a shocking lack of emotive reaction to the gruesome nature of the homicide, casually taking it in stride as a new case for investigation. This is often found among many autistic individuals since they have difficulties with expressing emotion or showing empathy for other people, even when faced with tragic situations. While Annika’s sense of professionalism is certainly a factor, her matter-of-fact response also suggests the likelihood of being on the autism spectrum, which also influences her interactions with her colleagues as the series progresses.
Another distinguishing trait that Annika displays is a tendency to regularly break the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience during intervals in her investigations, sharing her thoughts and reflections on the homicide cases and issues in her personal life. A notable aspect of these monologues is found in Annika’s frequent references to Norwegian culture and folklore, discussing mythic Nordic gods and drawing connections between them and the cases she is handling. This also suggests the possibility of her having autism since autistic individuals tend to have a narrow and highly specialized area of interest in which they have immense knowledge. In Annika’s case, this is illustrated by her knowledge of Norwegian mythology and folklore, together with her tendency to unload her thoughts on this subject to the audience. Many autistic individuals display this tendency, as well, since they often delve into an extensive elaboration on their topic of specialization, which can have unpredictable results sine they might impress listeners with their extensive knowledge but, conversely, could also alienate them by showing no consideration for the listeners’ interest. At one point in the finale of Season 1, this takes a comical turn when Annika starts discussing Shakespeare while being held hostage in the trunk of a suspect’s car, speaking to the audience in a casual manner despite her frightening circumstances, and then tries to defuse the situation by asking the suspect his thoughts about the topic, which only further irritates him as he yells, “Shut up! You keep talking all the time!”
Annika also displays a certain lack of social etiquette in her interactions with colleagues and with her family. For example, she shows difficulty with maintaining eye contact while discussing the homicide cases with her colleagues, as well as speaking in a curt and abrupt manner when having a disagreement. This is particularly illustrated by Annika’s interactions with her daughter Morgan (Silvie Furneaux), who is constantly at odds with her mother over various issues, including the fact that she has never met her father, whose identity Annika wishes to keep secret for some unspecified reason. At one point, when Annika discovers Morgan talking on the phone with her maternal grandfather, from whom Annika has been estranged, she abruptly grabs the phone and scolds her father in Norwegian, much to Morgan’s indignation. Although Annika’s estrangement from her father is a strong motivating factor, her abruptness in snatching the phone from Morgan and forbidding her from contact with her grandfather shows a profound lack of social graces since she shows no consideration for Morgan’s feelings, nor does she ask for her daughter to give her the phone. This is also suggestive of the possibility of Annika being on the autism spectrum since many autistic individuals often lack social etiquette in their interactions with others, which can manifest itself in talking over them during a conversation, not recognizing the cues for ending a conversation, or acting abruptly with the unintended effect of offending their peers.
Among the positive traits that Annika displays are a highly logical mindset, detail orientation, and ability to think in patterns, which she readily brings to her work as a detective. Throughout the series, this proves to be an important asset since it helps her team solve the different homicide cases they investigate. Annika’s tendency to make connections between Norwegian folklore and her cases also plays a critical role in her work since it helps her to find clues and patterns which lead to the identification of the main suspects. These traits offer further evidence of Annika’s possible autism since autistic individuals tend to have very pattern-based and logical thinking processes, particularly in their areas of specialization, with the result that they will excel in these fields. Because of this, many employers have been actively recruiting candidates with autism for high-level corporate jobs that require attention to detail and organization. However, the downside of this tendency is that because autistic individuals have a very singular and narrow focus on their topic of interest, they will often struggle with subjects outside their field of specialization. For Annika, this struggle is found primarily in her difficulties with social etiquette, as well as finding the right moment to reveal the identity of Morgan’s father to Michael McAndrews (Jamie Sives), her longtime colleague and former lover. The ultimate revelation in Season 2 will bring about an unexpected turn both in their relationship and Annika’s relationship with her daughter.
In summation, the Annika miniseries provides a compelling, often darkly humorous, portrait of a detective with clear signs of autism, which prove both beneficial in her professional career and alienating in her social relationships. Although the show makes no overt references to autism, Annika’s symptoms indicate that she is very likely an undiagnosed individual who may not be cognizant of her autism or is completely indifferent to it. Since women tend to be diagnosed with autism at a lower rate than men, film and television depictions of autism typically revolve around a male protagonist on the spectrum, and portrayals of female protagonists tend to have specific references to their autism. Considering this, Annika offers a prime example of the representation of women with autism who have not been officially diagnosed. Because women (and people more broadly) with no official autism diagnosis do not receive the attention or services that officially diagnosed individuals are eligible for, it is critical that autism health professionals devote greater consideration to the symptoms that undiagnosed individuals display so that they may take advantage of the resources and opportunities available to officially diagnosed people with autism. Hopefully the Annika miniseries will provide an incentive for moving in that direction.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.