Bradley Riches: Being autistic in the Celebrity Big Brother house

Bradley Riches in Celebrity Big Brother

Heartstopper star Bradley Riches has revealed how his autism posed a constant challenge as a contestant in the latest series of ITV's Celebrity Big Brother.

"The kitchen was white - the white lights were absolutely disgusting," said Riches, whose autism shows up through sensory sensitivities.

He disclosed that his fear that the bright lights might trigger a sensory overload led him to spend a lot of his time either outside, or in the bathroom with fellow housemate David Potts.

"Luckily the lights weren't as bad in the bathroom. It felt more comfortable and less distressing there," he told the Access All podcast.

That wasn't Riches' only coping mechanism in the Big Brother house, which he shared with the likes of music managers Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh.

Bradley Riches with other Celebrity Big Brother contestants
Bradley (l) with fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestants Fern Britton, Louis Walsh and Colson Smith [Instagram Brad_riches]

The first autism-related challenge Riches had to face came before he had even entered the house and was greeted by cheering crowds outside.

"I had my earplugs in, which was very helpful. It allowed me to be more present because I wanted to absorb all of it, but also I didn't want to be so overwhelmed that I just shut down and had a breakdown."

The lack of routine in the house was a further problem.

Like many autistic people, another characteristic of Riches' condition is feelings of anxiety triggered by a sense that the world feels chaotic.

Riches normally copes by carefully structuring his day into what he describes as "like a school timetable".

The 22-year-old used a similar approach to tackle his shooting schedule on productions such as 1917 and Saltburn.

Bradley Riches in Heartstopper
Bradley Riches plays James McEwan in Heartstopper [Netflix]

"I used to structure my schedule daily. For filming I have to structure my routine weekly," he says.

And this technique helped him navigate his time in the house.

"I got my brain around it quite easily. I blocked off three weeks, and that was my routine and I expected the unexpected. Once I was in that routine, I felt very comfortable and very open with everyone, I was on a roll."

Riches began to feel comfortable enough to let his housemates see him stimming, which is self-stimulatory behaviour like making noises or repetitive body movements, for example with a hand or a finger.

It usually occurs when an autistic person feels overwhelmed or overstimulated by their environment, and the repetitive movements act as a way to process those feelings.

Riches told Access All he feels that he has helped other autistic people by allowing the cameras to show him stimming.

"I just felt so accepted, and I was like, if I want to stim I'm going to stim and not feel ashamed of it."

Riches added that people on social media said, 'he's literally stimming, like, how important is that?'. He said: "I really felt so comfortable in that situation."

Access All host Emma Tracey with Bradley
Access All host Emma Tracey with Bradley [BBC]

Riches also revealed that his autism meant he did not speak until he was 10 years old.

"I would use sounds or movements to communicate. I became really reserved," he said.

That only changed when his grandmother encouraged him to boost his confidence by taking acting classes.

"I started to find these people who are very similar to me and I started to use my voice as a form of communication. It allowed me to accept myself a lot more.

"Acting was an escapism. I was playing these characters who were far away from me, and it made me find me."

Riches went on to train at drama school, before Netflix's LGBTQ drama Heartstopper came calling.

He says the show changed his life. After a walk-on part in the first season, he was asked back to star as James McEwan in season two.

"For them to remember me for one line was unheard of," he says. "I met so many amazing people on that show."

Riches has already filmed the third series, which is due to be released in October.

But he is staying tight-lipped about what is next for his character.

"Who knows? I want to keep my job!" he says.

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