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Emma Tomlinson - My perspective on autism as an Autistic neurodivergent

25 March 2024

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My name is Emma Tomlinson, and I am a Singer/Songwriter, Professional Musician, Independent Artist, Actor, Performer, Content Creator and Autism Queensland Official Ambassador… and yes, I am Autistic.

Twenty years ago, at the age of 4 years old I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by the world's foremost specialists on Autism Professor Tony Attwood PhD and Clinical Psychologist Michelle Garnett PhD. My brother at age 6, was also diagnosed with ASD one month before my diagnosis. It was here my parent's understanding of autism began. To make things more interesting was the fact we are two Autistic siblings on two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. My mother made it her mission to ensure we received the assistance and inclusion we were entitled to. From an early age, we both became part of a vision to foster a neurodivergent-affirming community. Assistance from professionals targeted at high-functioning individuals was far and few between, however my mother searched endlessly until we both received the due care we were entitled to.

I required specialised speech therapy and my brother required special time-out respite to manage his stress levels. The help was there, but unfortunately Mum had to venture down many rabbit holes to obtain support. Since being diagnosed 20 years ago it is only now that I observe a community ready to understand and accept neurodivergence and its rainbow variance.

Early years and school

I was 6 years old when I began to understand that I was different from my peers, recognising and learning about my autism and how it affected me. I remember at primary school hiding under the desk and blocking my ears because I was hypersensitive to the noise in the classroom. I used to speak with a monotone voice paired with an incredible stutter, causing the other little girls to think I was “abnormal” and not want to play with me. This led to me attending speech therapy which enabled me to develop the ability to take on character voices easily in stage productions.

At the same time, I would visit Tony and Michelle at their clinic “Minds and Hearts” in Brisbane for sessions to assist with my neuropathic development in managing my autism and anxiety. I learnt the craft of masking by watching how the popular girls and adults would act in social settings by mirroring or copying the facial expressions, actions, and behaviours they would present. I would pre-empt responses to people by practising them in the mirror or by myself playing with my Barbies, Bratz or Littlest Pet Shop. I would suppress physical symptoms and instead fidget or pick my fingers until they bled. I would hyper-fixate on everything and anything to do with the creative and performing arts. (I still strongly do.) Singing and performing was my sanctuary as I would get severely bullied for having autism. Kids back then didn’t understand what the term autism meant, nor were they provided education on understanding what autism really is.

The genres of opera and musical theatre were perfect for someone with a naturally loud voice, and when it came to pitch, my hypersensitive hearing produced a reliable timbre. However, I would often be told by adults not to sing so loud and to give others a go who were not in key nor could sing with their diaphragm. This was generally other women trying to compete for roles, and at times, these individuals went as far as to tell sound engineering to turn my microphone down.

“my mum said I can’t play with you because you have autism and she doesn't want me near someone like you!” Someone like me? I was just a little girl trying to fit in and understand.

The bullying and labelling occurred all through pre/primary school to high school where I would get called “retard”, “spastic” or “a disease” as they believed that if they would play with me they would catch my autism and then would spread rumours to tell the other kids, such as “my mum said I can’t play with you because you have autism and she doesn't want me near someone like you!”

Someone like me? I was just a little girl trying to fit in and understand why she is in the special education unit at school also known as “The Rainbow Room” has no control over having a neurological disability. In high school, the bullying got worse and turned to cyberbullying. One of the girls created an ‘I Hate Emma’ Facebook page and invited other students to participate whilst walking up to me or texting me “Hey Emma! Nobody wants to hear an Autistic person sing, plus you don’t even look Autistic!”.

To say to an Autistic person that they don’t look Autistic is incredibly offensive. Over the years and still today after I have disclosed to certain people that I have autism their response has majority been “No way! Really?! I would never have been able to guess as you don’t look Autistic!” My mother would come to my and my bother’s defence consistently by challenging our peers, their parents, the teachers, the schools and their assistance curriculums.

She was the first parent to suggest and introduce contractual terms that complimented my chosen curriculum to ensure my talents and my development needs were being met within the education setting, especially when it came to subjects associated with gaining university entrance. She recognised traits in me that she herself experienced as a child so had insight into how the school could assist me along with ensuring patterns to reduce my stress. She was finally diagnosed at the age of 50.

Becoming an advocate

Autism isn’t a look to be defined by. Autism is a complex lifelong developmental disability with characteristics that vary greatly from person-to-person on the spectrum. It can develop, change and improve over time, potentially impacting age and cognitive ability on how the characteristics of autism present themselves. Especially in young women like me who are Autistic, but do not present as Autistic.

At 14, my organically loud acoustic vocal ability made it on XFACTOR 2014. I was a featured vocalist for Channel 10’s Creative Generation State Schools On Stage 2014 – 2016, and I have made numerous appearances on the national and international stage. I graduated from the University of Sunshine Coast (USC) with a Bachelor of Creative Industries majoring in music and minoring in drama and social media under the High-Performance Music Program scholarship as a student-athlete 2019 - 2020.

At age 18, I initiated the first-ever autism social support program at USC for other students studying on the autism spectrum. This was assisted by my mother who helped the University psychologist understand how Autistic individuals can be supported when transitioning from high school to university.

Autism does not disappear when an individual turns 18 and the neurotypical majority must understand family support is conditional where change is expected and university introduces huge change. Mum continued to rally for my efforts regarding autism awareness and requested that Autism Queensland recognise this, resulting in me becoming their formal ambassador.

I partnered my artwork “Blue Haired Girl” on tote bags with their campaign “Go Blue for Autism” to raise awareness of the different challenges facing girls on the autism spectrum. Due to the high volume of support through my patronage and ambassador role, I was awarded the special commendation Patronage Award in Autism Queensland’s 2023 Recognition Awards by the Governor of Queensland and Collaborative Women’s Network Noosa Region. I was awarded the Noosa Regional Arts Development Fund with the assistance of family funding which was released in 2020 towards my first EP AQUARIUS that made it onto streaming platforms featuring debut single ROSEMARY and SILVER LIGHTNING.

In 2023, I released a new single SOUR HEART, illustrating positivity and empowerment neurodiversity in young women and girls. Promoting “Being Different Makes A Difference” featured in Scenestr February 2023, ABC News, ABC Radio Brisbane, 4zzz radio, Radio Metro, The singers Company in Toronto.

My new single release ELECTRIC BLUE positively empowers love in all forms through diversity and equality. I have made numerous appearances on the national and international stage performing as a guest artist with the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra, performing at Caloundra Music Festival 2023, Feature Artist at Brisbane Festival 2023 Undercover Artist Festival WunderSounds 2023, Feature Artist at the FIFA Fan FestivalTM Brisbane / Meaanjin for the FIFA Women’s Australian and New Zealand World Cup 2023, Performed the Australian National Anthem at the Australian of the Year Awards 2023 for the Queensland Nominees. Performed the Australian National Anthem for the opening ceremony of the Virtus Oceania Asia Games 2022. Performing as the Queensland Premiers nominated Brisbane Feature Artist for the Green and Gold Runway 2022 Olympic 2032 Games Pre-celebration event. Nominated finalist in Brisbane’s QUBE EFFECT 2022 with music video CONTROL nominated for the 2022 Brisbane’s People’s Choice Award to name a few… and I am only 24.

To have successfully accomplished so much at such a young age is incredible and it makes me feel even more strongly passionate. It makes me proud to be an Australian female artist not only as a singer-songwriter but branching into acting within the screen industry and continuing on stage productions. It aligns or highlights that being Autistic is the best superpower.

My superpower is also my vocal ability or taking on then adapting and transforming into character roles on stage and screen. The zone of performing is where I can feel elated, safe, and reliably entertained. Therefore, I am honoured to understand, encourage and celebrate World Autism Understanding Day because “being different makes a difference”.

- Emma Tomlinson, Singer/Songwriter and Autism Queensland Ambassador

Emma is a proud ambassador for Autism Queensland, a leading provider of specialist autism services and Queensland’s peak autism body.

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