Australian actor Chloé Hayden won global acclaim for her portrayal of Quinni in the Netflix show Heartbreak High. In this powerful piece for Processing, Stylist’s new collection of first-person stories as part of our Frame Of Mind series, she shares her journey from autism and ADHD making her feel like an “alien” to finally accepting her mind – and helping other neurodivergent women do the same.
I was 13 when my English teacher called my parents for an emergency meeting that ended with: “There may be something wrong with your daughter.” At first, my parents thought I might have brain damage from falling off my pony too many times, but after being referred to a psychologist, the diagnosis was solid: autism, along with a healthy dose of anxiety and depression.
Seeing my mum sob, I thought I must have a fatal illness. I googled autism and found only negative, fear-based articles – ‘how to cure autism’, ‘I hate my autistic child’, ‘support groups near me for families ruined by autism’ – which made me believe it wasn’t a death sentence… it was immensely worse.
Before that moment, I was always my parents’ ‘quirky little girl’, their ‘princess and the pea child’. I grew up knowing I was different, both from other kids and from what the world wanted and expected me to be. I felt like I was an alien who had crash-landed on another planet, desperately wondering why I couldn’t just fit in, why what made sense to others didn’t to me, why I couldn’t find my place and why everyone else seemed to slot in with ease while I felt like I belonged to an entirely different puzzle.
I was blessed that before and after my diagnosis, my parents loved, valued and cherished all the ‘quirky’ parts of me. But not everyone felt the same. At school, I hid in the library or toilets each day, terrified of the bullies who would torment me from the moment I walked into school until the final bell rang. It took a toll. I grew up believing that I wasn’t supposed to be here, because every external thing in my life confirmed exactly that.
Terrified and unsure of this new diagnosis, I did what any Gen Z kid would: I wrote my deepest feelings on the internet in the form of an anonymous blog. I wasn’t doing this to be inspirational or to help people… I was doing it because I was terrified, and I was desperate to find just one more person that was like me.
Little did I know that blog wouldn’t just help me find one person – it would help me find quite literally millions.
Growing up in a tiny country town where everyone met this stock standard version of ‘normal’ meant that there wasn’t any wiggle room for someone who didn’t. Finally learning about and eventually meeting others that shared my story made me realise I wasn’t on an alien planet – or if I was, there were a lot more people on the rocket ship with me.
I started to realise the beauty in who I was, and that being autistic could be my superpower – not a death sentence. Autism and ADHD (which came as a diagnosis when I was 22) are my every day. I don’t know what life is like without them. To this day, there are times when I’ll discover something I do, feel or experience isn’t common: “What do you mean this isn’t normal?”
Neurodiversity means I am incredibly creative, and I don’t have this invisible, socially constructed box that most of the population has decided on. My ideas, my art, the way I showcase my work, all that is limited only to my imagination, not what society dictates. It means that when something is important to me, I’m going to know more about it, and be better at it, than just about anyone else in the world; when I was a child, I lectured a Titanic (the ship, not the film) expert and historian about his lack of knowledge, and proceeded to tell him the correct information.
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On the flipside, it also means that our world is incredibly overwhelming: it’s too loud, too bright and too much. It means I am often excluded from other stories, journeys and life experiences – that the way we have been taught is just not the way I work. It means that at this point, seclusion is inevitable, and finding your path can be met with a lot of brambles and prickles. It means my story is an absolutely wicked rollercoaster ride. The next wonderful up? Becoming an actor.
I’ve always adored performing, even when I was fuelled with anxiety and fear; when I was on a stage, I felt completely safe, completely free. It was the only place in the world that made sense, where the lines and emotions were pre-written, and where my job was to simply play pretend… something I’d had to master throughout my entire life, anyway. It was something I knew I wanted to do – but also something that felt like a pipe dream. I could barely leave my house; how could I ever be an actor?
I began studying acting, performing on stage and in some shorts, then in March of 2021, my life changed again. In a tiny country town for one of my seminars, I looked at my phone and saw 30 missed calls from my manager. When I got off stage and answered it, all he had to say was, “Are you sitting down?” and I knew immediately: I had landed the role of Quinni in Heartbreak High.
I had to get back on stage a minute later to perform, and I wasn’t allowed to tell a single person for almost a year. I knew Quinni was neurodivergent when I auditioned for her, but making her autistic was a decision made by me and the Heartbreak High team, which meant so much to me. Not only had I reached my lifelong dream of being an actor, but I was going to give young people the representation that I never had growing up.
The show arrived on Netflix in September 2022, and even now, I get hundreds of messages a day from people all over the world, praising Quinni and thanking me for her. I’ve heard of people saying they got their autism diagnosis thanks to seeing her, that schools are showing her scenes to teach students about autism, and that people have shown Quinni to their friends, partners, doctors and families to help them finally understand neurodiversity.
Quinni is the person so many people have needed for so long, and to be part of that story is incredibly overwhelming… in the best way possible.
I’ve learned from my journey, and playing Quinni, that it’s essential for me to look after myself, to value my mental health and where it’s at. I validate myself and remind myself that I’m a neurodivergent human living in a neurotypical society, that I’m not supposed to be functioning like everyone else, and that’s OK. I do need extra help at times. I do need to rely on my support network. I do need to care for myself differently… and that’s OK. I’m allowed to need that.
What I’ve learned, and what I want every neurodivergent to know, is the importance of caring for yourself the way you need to, not the way others believe you should.
I’m convinced that the only reason autistic people are deemed ‘weird’ is that there are fewer of us… neurotypicals are without a doubt the weirder ones. None of your rules make sense. I’d take my mind any day.
Now, if a genie told me he could make me neurotypical, I’d smack him. I’m so, so proud of my neurodivergence. It’s what makes me who I am. Yes, there are a few things that I struggle with – little potholes in my path because of it – but what protagonist doesn’t have to battle a few dragons? In my view, it’s those dragons that make the best stories.
Different, Not Less: A Neurodivergent’s Guide To Embracing Your True Self And Finding Your Happily Ever After by Chloé Hayden (Murdoch Books, £14.99) is out now.
Images: Stylist; courtesy of Chloé Hayden
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