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16 May 2024

‘Not just buzz words’: reflections on neurodiversity, Chloé Hayden and Deakin

Over the next few months, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team will be sharing their reflections on inclusion and accessibility.

This month, as we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday 16 May, Teagan Menhenett and Maddie Fogarty (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultants) reflect on Deakin Residential Services’ (DRES) and DEI’s spectacular partnership event: Neurodiversity with Chloé Hayden.

Content warning: This article contains language and statistics about mental illness, school trauma, and autism which may be confronting or distressing for readers. Support is available to students through the Health and Wellbeing webpage.

Neurodiversities: ‘They’re not just buzz words’

You have probably been hearing the terms ‘neurodivergence’, ‘neurodivergent’ and ‘neurodiversity’ a lot more recently – but do you really know what they mean?

Neurodiversity is a term that encompasses the diversity of all human brains, neurotypical or neurodivergent. ‘Neurotypical’ describes someone whose brain works in line with the majority, and ‘neurodivergent’ or ‘neurodivergence’ describes someone whose brain works differently to this majority. Neurodivergence includes dyslexia, dysgraphia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, acquired brain injury, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or variable attention stimulus trait (VAST), autism, and others.

Our society needs neurotypical and neurodivergent brains, and Deakin is committed to fostering safer communities that are free from violence, celebrates diversity, and are inclusive of everyone – neurotypical and neurodivergent.

This is a commitment close to the hearts of Deakin Residential Services (DRES) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). That’s why, in celebration of Neurodiversity Awareness Week and Respect at Uni Week (18–24 March 2024), DRES and DEI partnered to host Chloé Hayden at Waurn Ponds.

Meet Chloé Hayden

Chloe HaydenChloé is an award-winning actor, author, speaker, and disability rights activist. She was diagnosed autistic at the age of 13, and ADHD at the age of 21, and on her path of self-discovery she has built a global community that transcends borders, inspires change and advocates for a future where everyone has an equal chance to thrive. Chloé also plays Quinni in Netflix’s Heartbreak High, making history as Australia’s first mainstream autistic actress and raising awareness about the importance of authentic representation.

More than 350 staff, students, community members, and friends of Deakin gathered in person and online to hear Chloé share her experiences of neurodiversity and life. Reflecting her love for Disney, Chloé’s talk followed a similar story arc to that of a fairytale, broken into the beginning phase, the adventure phase, and the happily-ever-after phase.

In Chloé’s beginning phase, she described always knowing she was different, as though she were an alien on the wrong planet. Chloé didn’t understand eye contact and small talk, and struggled to conform to a neurotypical society that didn’t understand her. Fundamentally, Chloé recalls receiving the message that ‘you’ve yet to grow into normality but it will happen’; the message that there was something wrong with her.

As all fairytales do, Chloé’s talk then moved to the adventure phase. During this phase Chloé shared her experiences with bullying, mental illness, and school trauma. Within this she cited some confronting statistics, such as autistic people being seven times more likely to die by suicide than non-autistics, and autistic people having a current global life expectancy of 38 years of age (compared to the average global life expectancy of 72).

Chloé described her adventures seeing many different specialists and professionals and undergoing many tests. These tests involved those around her trying to figure out what was ‘wrong’ with Chloé. Eventually Chloé received her diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. The term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ is no longer used: the correct diagnostic term is Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autistic people perceive and experience the world in a fundamentally different way to people who are not autistic. But what does ‘spectrum’ mean? There is a misconception that autism is a long line, and at one end of the line someone is ‘a little bit’ (‘high-functioning’) autistic, and someone at the other end of the line is ‘very’ (‘low-functioning’) autistic. This is not true. People are either autistic or they are not.

Chloé spoke about the harmful use of ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ labels to describe an autistic person’s capacity. Instead, it is important to recognise that autistic people’s needs and abilities can and do fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. Here, using the examples of Pumba and Timon from the Lion King, Chloé highlighted the importance of finding your sidekick, someone who can help support you through your life. A sidekick will not abandon you when life gets tough. Never underestimate the importance and value of someone who can help you thrive in the world: you are the main character, and you get to ‘choose your family’.

Once she had received her diagnosis, Chloé found it next to impossible to find accurate, neuro-affirming information about autism. ‘Neuro-affirming’ information is information which embraces, respects, and values neurodivergent people. So, Chloé started a YouTube channel. This channel was the beginning of Chloé’s advocacy journey. Chloé emphasises that we all have control over our lives; the freedom to choose the paths we take. And that is exactly what Chloé did.

Entering the happily-ever-after phase of Chloé’s journey, Chloé has come to accept herself for who she is, recognising that she is exactly who she is meant to be. Chloé encouraged her audience to ‘be the author of your own story’ and to find your ‘eye-sparkle’; your passion, your drive and do whatever you can to nurture this. Chloé concluded her talk by telling her audience:

If the world isn’t created for you, there is no reason why you can’t create your own world.

‘Be the author of your own story’

Chloé’s talk showed the importance of large institutions making space for neurodivergence. Most systems generally struggle to support difference as they are catered for the mainstream. But like Chloé said: ‘there is no reason why you can’t create your own world.’

To further work towards an accessible and safe environment at Deakin, the team at DEI have been working on the Hidden Disability Sunflower project. The Sunflower symbol is a way for those who are living with a hidden disability to identify themselves if they chose to do so, and say to others ‘I’m here’, ‘I might need a moment’, or ‘I need a hand’.

Hidden disabilities are disabilities which are not immediately apparent to another person.

Examples of hidden disabilities include autism, ADHD, anxiety and other mental health conditions, chronic illness and more. You can learn more about the Hidden Disability Sunflower program, request a lanyard or wristband, or receive training, by visiting the Sunflower learning page.

It was incredible to hear Chloé speak, and her message is applicable to everyone. Neurodivergent or neurotypical: society needs all types of brains. We all have a part to play in creating an accessible and inclusive culture.

What next?

Further support is available

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