Genre: Nonfiction / Autobiography / Memoir
Perfect for: anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong
Content warnings: ableism, bullying, medical content, mental illness, violence
In her autobiographical love letter for the world's outcasts, autistic actress Chloé Hayden guides readers to discover their ‘happily ever after’. In a world where ableism is entrenched in society, neurodiverse people are forced into a painful and humiliating box that they will never fit in. Her recounts of struggling through the Australian education system, mental health issues, severe bullying and other traumatic events are accompanied by witty humour and advice for those feeling lost in similar circumstances. Different, Not Less is a testament to the power of disabled voices in Australian society and defying the barriers that obstruct us.
This was intended to be a regular review, but as an autistic person myself, I couldn’t help but respond to the dialogue Hayden creates. Regardless of who you are or what stage of life you’re in, the attitudes and lessons she addresses are relatable and familiar to many. It’s a book for everyone. She provides advice on how to handle feeling overwhelmed, emerging from mental health crises, handling trauma and embracing your most authentic identity. There is space to unlearn ableist biases that are so deeply ingrained in society that we are not aware of them. Even as someone affected by ableism, many internalised beliefs I hold about disability were examined under the microscope. This response reflects on Hayden’s powerful writing, my experiences as an autistic person and how important this book is for neurodiverse people.
“Different minds, bodies, identities … they’re picked apart, as we either learn to conform or grow numb to the feeling of being alienated.”
After hearing about Different, Not Less, I knew I had to buy it. Based on the blurb alone, I hoped it would change my life. A naïve and admittedly way-too-hopeful expectation, I know. I’m an autistic girl who has put on a mask of neurotypicality to hide anything that makes me stand out. When I gave a speech to my high school about breaking down ableism and my experience as an autistic girl, I struggled to keep up with the words on the paper in front of me and make eye contact with the crowd. I started to cry and shut down mid-speech because I was still trying to keep my mask up. Otherwise, I would look outwardly autistic. It should be no surprise that I wanted this book to change my outlook on everything. I was scared that if it didn’t meet my expectations, I would be trapped in a cycle of self-hating and inauthenticity – something I’ve loathed for most of my life.
It’s clear from the first sentence that Hayden adores anything and everything associated with Disney animated movies. The adult world considers these films childlike and immature, but she doesn’t care. Her insistence on using the films as examples reaffirms the importance of cherishing the special interests a neurodivergent person may have. These interests are not distractions or mere ‘quirks’ that someone may indulge in. For many neurodivergent people, they form the framework for understanding the confusing world. They are an escape from judgement and an opportunity to embark into the unknown or magical. They can create identities and are home to many. It’s also a point of reference for neurotypical readers who may not necessarily understand the concepts she’s explaining at first. However, through the lens of a favourite childhood movie they may be familiar with, it becomes as clear as day the point she’s getting at. It also reaffirms that just because something is ‘childish’, you don’t have to stop enjoying it as an adult.
Recurring throughout the narrative are three familiar characters – Genie from Aladdin, Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Simba from The Lion King. They represent the fear, claustrophobia and intimidation neurodiverse and ‘different’ people are subjected to because of the way society is built. Whenever these characters are brought up, they’re used to aid her argument and assert that society is designed to trap those who do not conform to the status quo. The characters are repeatedly strung in and out of the narrative, ensuring that there’s always a universal way to understand what Hayden is describing. Everyone can understand and relate to the desperation, isolation and loneliness that Genie, Quasimodo and Simba experienced in their films. I couldn’t help but become emotional while reading this. Hayden expresses the absolute hopelessness that blooms inside of disabled people because the rules of life are built without us in mind.
“I was exhausted. The light in my body was fading and I had no desire to even be here anymore. What was the point when life was a constant circle of forcing a broken mask onto yourself to survive, only to rip it off at the end of the day to reveal a girl who was just as broken?”
Autistic people are taught to hide. When I first got diagnosed, I was told I had to keep it a secret. I barely understood what ‘autism’ meant myself, but because I was told to hide it, I knew it wasn’t good. I couldn’t talk to anyone, even my friends, about things I enjoyed because it was all childish, and I had to grow up. I had to sit down once a week with a psychologist who taught me neurotypical social skills, and then I would have to practice these skills as homework with my parents. I still have memories of bursting into tears in front of my dad because I couldn’t do the eye contact exercises. Once my ‘therapy’ was complete, I had officially been sent off into the world with a mask that made me ‘normal’. I remember being happy about it too. People told me that I had ‘matured’, and I was so proud of myself for being normal. I was no longer an outsider looking in, I was playing the neurotypical game. And I was a master at it too. Eye contact? Check! Sitting still? Check! Name a ‘social skill’, and I had a degree in it.
I thought that was good for me at the time, at least. Now, I struggle with crippling identity crises every other day and I still have a lingering fear that someone is looking over my shoulder on the train and judging me for whatever I’m doing. For years my stims were physically harmful because I couldn’t stim the way I wanted to – slapping or punching my thighs is still something I struggle to deal with. I don’t know where Tiana begins and where she ends. Is she the well-mannered and attentive girl who is ‘oh so mature’? Or is she the silent girl who looks like she’s zoning out every two seconds and mentally dying inside, but somehow manages to pull it together when the situation calls for it? This book reminds me that I deserve to feel comfortable in society. Neurodiverse and ‘different’ people are taught that you need to grow up or get out. We’re told that educational and employment institutions don’t have room for us. We’re given the impression that there is something fundamentally wrong with us for simply existing as we are, so we need to hide anything that screams being abnormal. It’s not fair.
Hayden offers an intersectional perspective, discussing the barriers people of colour, LGBTQ+ and other marginalised groups face in similar environments. People of colour are ostracised for calling out blatant racism in school or the workplace – they’re told they’re being ‘dramatic’ or that it will be handled when it won’t be. Worse yet, they’re punished for speaking out and causing ‘controversy’. Because god forbid someone says or does something microaggressive or blatantly racist towards you, and you react to their actions. LGBTQ+ people are forced to keep their identities a secret for fear of public backlash or making others uncomfortable. When they get ostracised for expressing their sexuality or gender identity the way they see fit, the blame is on them for daring to break heteronormative standards. Disabled folks are denied opportunities because it’s too hard to accommodate them even when making the most marginal accessibility arrangements wouldn’t cost institutions a dollar and usually benefit most people. It’s this nuanced argument that doesn’t shy away from calling out the discrimination people deemed abnormal are subjected to that adds another layer of depth to the book.
“During morning prayers, the school priest would come to our classroom to light a candle that represented Jesus, then we would stand in a circle and the teacher would pass the candle (meaning Jesus) around so we could all pray. On the third day of school … I sneezed. I single-handedly blew out Jesus.”
Hayden’s writing is charming and funny. At the end of any spiel about her experiences, a quick analogy about Disney, an ironic joke or a reaffirmation about the best parts of herself eases the tension. It ensures that readers are constantly reminded that autistic, ADHD and beyond people are capable members of society, regardless of how they’re perceived. The trauma and bullying we are subjected to is not a reflection of how weird or useless we are, but the way society needs to adapt to accommodate us. Why is it fair that Hayden, myself and others have to experience these terrible things to only come to terms with our identities when we’re young adults, or for some, well into adulthood or mature age?
Hayden’s view of the world is crafted beautifully. On the surface, her writing doesn’t appear to be all that technical until you inspect it closer. There’s something captivating about the way Hayden writes about her experiences of feeling like she doesn’t belong. They’re absolutely heartbreaking and harrowing, but there’s something about her writing that made me unable to put the book down. Her writing is full of life and the sensorial experience that neurodiverse people are subjected to. It’s not the emotionless and metallic ‘autistic perspective’ force-fed to us in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time where an allistic author writes an autistic character as though they are a robot incapable of empathy (a common stereotype). Her writing is overflowing with personality and an autistic perspective that can only be expressed by someone who is autistic. In a way, it’s so endearing to see someone able to unabashedly express themselves, their needs and advocate for others without a voice (or surrounded by people who aren’t listening).
That all being said, this book touches on a lot of confronting and hard-to-read content. I highly encourage anyone planning to read this book to have a look at the trigger warnings list that I’ve provided above, or alternatively, list any you can find online to ensure you’re comfortable with the topics discussed. In particular, this book tackles Chloe’s experiences with eating disorders, school violence and bullying, sexual assault and more. At times, this book can be incredibly hard to stomach, and it’s essential to make sure you’re prepared to read about these issues before you jump head-first into it.