Heartstopper’s Bradley Riches on finding love as a queer autistic person

Heartstopper star Bradley Riches has spoken about finding love and the difficulties he experienced dating, as an autistic person.

The actor, currently starring as gay teen Toby in new musical comedy Babies, announced his engagement to theatre director Scott Johnston in April. But finding his happily-ever-after didn’t come without false starts. 

Speaking exclusively to PinkNews, Riches opened up about being in previous relationships with people who “wouldn’t get” his autism diagnosis and how it affects him.

“Once I was in a relationship, communication was quite difficult sometimes. Sometimes when I [was] burnt out and I needed my space, they wouldn’t get it,” he said.

“I think that’s where a lot of relationships – especially with neurodiverse people and autistic people or people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) – don’t work out, because the other person doesn’t understand it.

“You feel upset and exhausted trying to explain yourself all the time, and you’re explaining yourself more than actually enjoying this person’s company.

Heartstopper star Bradley Riches wears a red jumper with gelled hair
Bradley Riches was diagnosed with autism when he was nine. (Antony Jones/Getty Images for Spotify)

“Neurodiverse people spend all [their] life explaining [themselves], so when you find your person and [you’re] in a relationship, you don’t want to explain yourself, you just want them just to kind of get it.

“You don’t always want to explain yourself because it’s draining.”

Riches was diagnosed with autism when he was nine years old, and has used his experience to write a children’s book, “A” Different Kind of Superpower, in the hope of helping other young, neurodiverse people.

In March, the actor – probably still best-known for playing James McEwan in Alice Oseman’s queer Netflix series – entered Celebrity Big Brother hoping to increase on-screen representation of neurodiverse people. According to viewers, he succeeded

Every year, 18 June marks Autistic Pride Day, a day for autistic people to celebrate their unique strengths and perspectives, and highlight how the condition can affect people.

Riches is now in a relationship with someone who fully understands how autism affects him on a day-to-day basis. 

“Scott gets it. Scott gets me, which is really lovely,” he said.

Photo shows Bradley Riches embracing his fiance in a heart shaped pattern made of roses, against a tropical backdrop on a balcony
Bradley Riches (R) is engaged to theatrical director Scott Johnston. (Instagram/@brad_riches)

“He just gets me, and he gets along with all my friends as well, which is nice. We kind of have the same friend group now. It just feels very good, [I’m] very happy, and very grateful.”

Riches and Johnston got engaged in Italy, in what the actor described as a “really lovely” moment.

His character in Babies is one of nine Year-11 pupils who have to keep robot infants alive as part of their sex-education class.

Playing a character who embraces his identity at such a young age is emotional for Riches, who didn’t feel comfortable in his own skin as a queer person until he was 20. He is now 22.

“[Toby’s] a character I wish I was at school. I wish I was that open, that free, that confident with who I was. It was quite cathartic to play him in some ways, thinking about 16-year-old me.”

Babies is running at The Other Palace theatre in central London until 14 July.

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