There’s a poignant scene in the reboot of TV series Heartbreak High in which Quinni, one of the students at an inner-city Sydney high school, reveals she is autistic.
Sasha, the girl Quinni has a crush on, is clearly incredulous. “Yeah but … you don’t … like you’re not … like I’ve met autistic people, and you’re like really emotionally intelligent.”
Like many of the scenes from Heartbreak High – which has been widely praised for its accurate portrayal of a young autistic person – the story draws closely on the experiences of Chloe Hayden, the autistic actor who plays Quinni.
“The biggest comment that I get is, ‘You can’t be autistic’ because people see me at music festivals and filming Netflix shows and writing books and stuff,” Hayden says.
“And part of that is people have this idea that autism is bad, and autism is scary and (autistic) people can’t do anything. So if you are doing something and you’re autistic, you can’t actually be autistic, which is bullshit.”
Hayden worked with the Heartbreak High writing team after landing the role of a neurodivergent student.
Her influence shows – Heartbreak High eschews the usual stereotypes of autism. Quinni is not a train-spotting maths genius who lacks empathy, she’s an exuberant creative thinker who talks about sex a lot and has learnt to “mask” to fit in better, forcing eye contact.
When we meet at Fitzroy stalwart Vegie Bar, Hayden is instantly recognisable in sunflower-print overalls, a yellow floral headdress, mismatched dangly earrings and glitter that sparkles on her cheekbones.
She quips that her style is very similar to Quinni’s “but she’s a lot cooler than I will ever be”.
Hayden, who was diagnosed with autism at 13 and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at 22, is an award-winning actor, disability activist, motivational speaker and influencer.
The 25-year-old has also just written a book, Different, Not Less, which is subtitled “a neurodivergent’s guide to embracing your true self and finding your happily ever after”.
Hayden, who is vegan, was first introduced to Vegie Bar by her grandfather, Kenpa, when they were enroute to a musical. It has been a favourite ever since.
Seventy per cent of autistic children have issues with food and eating, Hayden writes in Different, Not Less, due to sensory sensitivities and a hypersensitivity to taste and texture. Hayden says she can’t eat red food and on TikTok jokes that if there aren’t any hot chips on the menu, she isn’t going.
At Vegie Bar she orders spiced “chicken” bao (it’s fake chicken) and a coconut choc shake, while I have a mushroom taco and sparkling water.
It takes a long time for either of us to take a bite because we are talking so much. Hayden writes that people with ADHD have a tendency to speak extremely fast.
“I talk like a cheetah on steroids and regularly find myself putting videos and podcasts on double speed to overcome the pauses most people put between their words.”
There are two messages Hayden is evangelical about.
The first – different, not less – is a recurring theme. It’s the title of her book and a key lyric in her “autism anthem”, which has 8.7 million views on TikTok, in which she raps lines such as “Mozart, Einstein, Darwin. They were one of us. Autistic people paved the way, you weren’t ready to discuss. Change the way you see us. This much I will stress. It’s time that the world can see we are different not less.”
The second message is a clarion call for people to embrace their “eye sparkles”; those things, Hayden says, that “ignite a passion in us so deeply that it fills our every crevice”.
Hayden’s eye sparkles include horses, the pop boy band One Direction, the Titanic, the film Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and performing (she once belted out God Help the Outcasts on top of a table at La Porchetta, despite being selectively mute at the time).
Eye-sparkles, which are called “special interests” in autism terminology, are more likely to be trains, gadgets or maths in boys, whereas in girls they are often a love of animals, films and music.
But Hayden says most people’s idea of autism comes from Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, Raymond in Rain Man and Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
It annoys her that 95 per cent of disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors.
“This cisgender white guy in his 40s who is a neurotypical actor googled autism for 20 minutes and then decided to be my entire life. And it sucks because now people don’t understand what autism really is.”
Last year Hayden was furious when Australian pop star Sia cast a neurotypical person to play an autistic character in her directorial debut Music, saying the actor based her mannerisms on YouTube videos of autistic children having meltdowns.
She was even angrier when Sia justified her decision saying, “Casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.” (Sia later apologised for the depiction of autism in the film.)
This made for scriptwriting gold in Heartbreak High – when Sasha said Quinni didn’t seem autistic, Quinni retorts: “Okaay Sia”.
“I was really lucky in that I got to write almost all of her character, I had a part in her from the get go, which is a really, really rare thing,” Hayden says.
“The sad thing is a lot of autistic people’s stories are the exact same, because we’ve all gone through the same prejudice and ableism and all that sort of stuff our entire lives.”
One scene, in which love interest Sasha tells Quinni she was “too much”, was like an excerpt from Hayden’s diary. “I think it’s an experience that a lot of autistic people relate to.”
Hayden loved being able to stim in character. (Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, such as hand flapping, walking on toes, rocking, or jumping up and down is something autistic people may do to reduce anxiety or decrease sensory overload.)
“Playing an autistic character was so fun because I would just be stimming during a scene, and the director would be like, ‘That was great!’ I was like ‘All I have to do is stim and have fidget toys and wear ear defenders for an episode? Sick!’”
The first time Hayden saw her book, Different, Not Less, on the shelves she was at Sydney Airport after a day of doing press for Heartbreak High.
She posted a photograph of herself on Instagram, crying, on the floor of the newsagency, wearing socks and yellow Crocs.
“Thank you for allowing me to share my fairytale with you, it would be my greatest privilege to accompany you on your own next adventure: the one of you embracing who you are.”
Hayden’s story didn’t start as a fairytale. She was bullied mercilessly. She attended 10 different schools over eight years and was then home schooled from year eight, when her psychologist said school was never going to work.
Different, Not Less is part memoir, part self-help guide, covering everything from growing up “quirky”, to navigating sensory issues and meltdowns, finding friends and sidekicks, seeking a diagnosis, mental health and finding your happily ever after.
“I wrote this book because I wish I had it when I was diagnosed,” Hayden says. “And I wish my mum had it because my mum cried when I was diagnosed.”
Some of it makes for harrowing reading. Hayden had letters put in her locker telling her to kill herself. She had a slumber birthday party and gave BFF necklaces to the girls who attended only for them to throw them in the bin the next day and say, ‘We would never be friends with you.’ She was pushed in the shallow end of the pool on sports day and boys laughed despite her cracked teeth. Teachers pulled her aside and told her ‘You are in high school, you need to grow up’ and then gave her detention when she got teary for not understanding the lessons.
“I want my old teachers to read this,” Hayden says. “I want to send this to the schools that bullied me.”
It didn’t occur to anyone that a sensitive girl who loved horses and was terrible at maths might be autistic.
Hayden was finally diagnosed after a teacher called her parents for an emergency meeting. She showed them her messy locker, said Hayden’s work was substandard, she hid in the library and “there may be something wrong with her”. Her mother took her for MRI scans after the teacher suggested she may have injured her brain when she was thrown off her horse.
When these came up clear, Hayden was referred to a psychologist who eventually diagnosed her with autism.
“When I googled it, the only articles that would pop up were by parents or by doctors and they were always really scary and bad and speaking about autism in a really deficit way,” Hayden says.
“It was like parents on forums going, ‘My kid’s been diagnosed autistic, my whole life has ended’. And I was like well shit, what’s even the point my being here?”
Hayden’s life began to improve when she switched to home schooling and got out of the toxic school environment. She played the ukulele and performed as Anna from Frozen at a disability home. She volunteered for Riding for the Disabled Association and loved it.
At 16, she began blogging about being autistic under the pseudonym Princess Aspien.
“I wasn’t trying to be inspiring or anything. I was actually just screaming out to the world begging for other people that were like me.”
Hayden was overwhelmed by the response. Thousands of people told her she had made them realise they were not alone.
She wants young people who have just received an autism diagnosis to know they are exactly who they are supposed to be.
“Being a teenager is hard, and being a neurodiverse teenager makes it so much more difficult,” Hayden says. “But your brain is your brain and it was created to be different.”
Hayden says there are going to be things that autistic people will struggle with – she’s hopeless at maths, can’t drive a car or read an analogue clock, struggles to cook and can’t eat red food.
But she has just written a book, has half a million followers on social media, is a sought-after public speaker at schools and events, and is one of the first autistic actors to play an autistic character in a major TV series.
“I think it’s important to have the understanding that your mind is magic, and it’s so important to not lose that.”
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.