Chloé Hayden On Navigating The Unwritten Rules Of Friendship As A Neurodivergent Woman

The following is an edited exclusive extract from actress Chloé Hayden's book Different, Not Less.
In The Hunchback of Notre Dame we meet Esmeralda, a beautiful Romani woman, who is the only one in the entire world to show Quasimodo kindness — perhaps because she feels the same way as him: rejected by society. As she wanders through the church, she sings ‘God Help the Outcasts’, one of the best musical pieces of modern-day history.
Now, I know that I have a tendency to become overly, unnaturally, unhealthily obsessed over things — I have ADHD; it’s part of the contract — but from a young age this song became a huge part of my identity. My oxygen intake came from this song, my source of life came from this song... my reason for being was this song.
Little me — selectively mute, terrified of the world — would unashamedly scream this song at the top of my lungs with tears pouring down my cheeks and snot coming out of both nostrils, belting the lyrics like an autistic banshee, as if these words had been written just for me. (On one occasion, I stood on top of a table at a La Porchetta restaurant and sang it. The surprised waitress gave me a free vanilla ice-cream cone. My first paying gig. Nice.) However, it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I suddenly realised why this song meant so much to me: I was the outcast that Esmeralda sings about. All I wanted in the whole world was for one person to look at me the same way Esmeralda looks at Quasimodo.
In my Once Upon a Time, when everyone else was well and truly making friends, socialising — you know, doing the whole ‘person’ thing — I hadn’t at all figured out what I was supposed to do. Friendships? Conversations? Socialising? Sorry, come again?
In primary school, after I’d struggled all year to fit in and make friends, my parents decided to give a bit of a helping hand and throw the biggest, heck-of- a-sized Christmas party that the world had ever seen, inviting every child in my class and bribing them into coming with promises of Santa and monstrous amounts of party food, games and presents.
Of course, everyone RSVP’d, and 30 children rocked up with their best party clothes on, the brightest of smiles and friendly conversation. It was the party of my dreams, the party of the millennium, and every child in my class was eager and ready to befriend me. In that moment, I wholeheartedly embodied the ‘it girl’. I was the main character.
No more awkward interactions or lonely, sad schooldays for me. Five-year- old me naively thought that this sudden bout of friendship was all my own doing. I had finally, mysteriously mastered the art of making friends. Now, however, I realise the promise of presents maybe had something to do with it. Ignorance is bliss, or whatever they say, and for a few hours, I was the happiest that I think I had ever been.
But blissful ignorance can only last so long. The following day, I went to school, absolutely on top of the world and genuinely expecting to be greeted with the same bright smiles and open arms. That day, I got taken to the basketball court and beaten up.
At the beginning of high school, my school thought it would be a brilliant idea for all of us to go on a big camp to get to know each other. Reluctantly, and with a lot of tears, I had given in to my parents’ pleas and agreed to go. The camp itself was fine; I even managed to make friends with a girl I once again convinced myself would be a lifelong best friend. However, come the first week of school, she bluetoothed me a ‘diss track’ she had written about me (in her defence, it was by far the most creative method of disowning me I’ve ever received), broke into my locker and scribbled slurs on all of my notebooks, and began spreading rumours about me that caused the teachers to call me into uncomfortable, worried meetings. Those rumours stayed with me long after I left the school.
Whatever best friends I made through my teenage years ditched me because, ‘My mum said I might turn out like you, and I’m scared about that happening... sorry’, or ‘My other friends tease me for having an autistic best friend. It’s just too stressful on my mental health. But tell your little sister she’s still invited to my birthday party!’
Friendship is a concept that is often built on a foundation that doesn’t have any clear rules, laws or suggestions. It doesn’t make sense, and the rules change daily, minutely and situationally. With blokes, my understanding is that if they find a common interest in kicking a footy, or sharing a joke, or something that’s independent of deeper, unspoken communication, then everything’s handy-dandy. Their friendships don’t have to be built on intense emotional connection and social skills.

We are expected to socialise in the same way that our neurotypical peers do, despite our brains being anything but.

But when it comes to female friendships, my experience is that the relationship is almost entirely built on communication, talking and societal expectations that have to be met — skills neurodivergent girls often lack. There are so many hidden and unspoken rules, and it’s incredibly difficult, even for those who may not be neurodivergent.
Most of our communication is non-verbal, and that fact is often entirely missed by autistic folk. It shows up as eye contact, body language, tone, gestures, posture... the list goes on. And we’re expected to understand, maintain and use that 93% of communication — meaning that, when we don’t, not only can we become incredibly confused but our actions and reactions can also then be misconstrued by those around us.
We are expected to socialise in the same way that our neurotypical peers do, despite our brains being anything but. And, while many typical folk share common perceptions of the world, friendship and communication and can easily pick up on non-verbal cues, the thought of all that may seem almost alien to someone who’s neurodivergent. This leads us to becoming outcast, bullied and led astray. 43% of autistic teenagers never interact with peers outside of school, 54% of them have never received phone calls, texts or unplanned communication, and 50% have never been invited to a party or activity. We’re left without sidekicks, without people to call our own. The school years, when communication is forced upon us, are without a doubt the hardest.
I hate that this is something that actually needs to be said, but it has happened enough times that it needs to be brought to attention: Don’t treat your neurodivergent friends like a project.

We have spent our entire lives being coddled and ostracised and told we’re not what we can be just because we’re neurodivergent. We don’t need community-service friendships. We are not charity projects.

I had a friend once who used her friendship with me as a crutch. She would tell everyone who would listen that she was ‘friends with someone with autism’, like she was the second coming of Mary Magdalene herself, like the mere existence of a friendship with someone like me was the greatest sacrifice.
We have spent our entire lives being coddled and ostracised and told we’re not what we can be just because we’re neurodivergent. We don’t need community-service friendships. We are not charity projects.
If you have a friend who’s neurodivergent and you leave them out of events, bring up their diagnosis because it’s a quirky little clout chaser, don’t speak to them the same way you speak to your neurotypical friends, then maybe you’re not friends with them for the right reasons.
Treat us the same way you would treat any of your other mates.
At the end of the day, yes, we’re different. And yes, our minds work differently. And yes, we communicate differently. And yes, you need to be understanding and lenient (although, if you’re not doing this already with all of your mates... baby, I don’t know what to tell you).
But, overall, we’re one and the same. We’re all humans, we all yearn for friendship and companionship. All friendship should be mutually beneficial and built on kindness and respect.
When I left school and was given the opportunity to step out and engage with the world at my own pace, that’s when I started to discover my people. Originally, my people came in the form of internet-based friendships.
I wasn’t ‘Chloé, the weird autistic girl with knotty brown hair and flappy hands’, I was ‘Chloé, the artist, the blogger, the writer, the one who knows absolutely everything about One Direction and can eagerly blab to everyone else because we all came here for that sole purpose’. Once I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin, I started to step out further, and began to find friendship in the most beautiful places. My places.
I found friendship in my weekly horse-riding lessons, because all we would do is sit in the stables and talk about ponies.
I found friendship in the community theatre, because together we created beautiful plays and musicals (and all of my lines had already been chosen for me).
I found friendship with surfers at the beach, because there was no need to talk. We’d just listen to the waves and cheer each other on as we caught them and rode them in.
I found friendship in groups specifically catering to other autistic people, where my flappy hands and excited rambles and lack of eye contact was mirrored — many of these people have become lifelong friends.
I found friendships when I was no longer forced into communicating the way the world wanted me to; instead, I was allowed to simply be me.
Images and text from Different, Not Less by Chloé Hayden. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.
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