“All the time,” she says. “Twenty-four seven.”
Sometimes, users’ intentions seem purely cruel: Elston says one common refrain that’s “hard to hear” is parents expressing relief at their decision not to vaccinate their children “so they don’t turn out like [her].” (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism spectrum disorder.) Other users leave inappropriate comments about the creators’ age or appearance, like comments Dolan says she’s received encouraging her to create an OnlyFans account.
But much of the time, they say, comments seem more misinformed than mean. Users have questions about the prevalence of autism diagnoses in cisgender males versus cisgender females or the difference between person-first and identity-first language. By engaging with users in the comments or creating videos responding to popular misconceptions, they hope to change the way neurotypical people think about neurodiversity.
The creators Teen Vogue spoke to say this work is changing them too. Cheryl Fyfield (@_thislineismine), a British creator, says that being on TikTok has “made me confident and comfortable, and I feel like I have a voice, whereas before I felt like no one really knew my story.”
Almost universally, the creators say that their favorite part of having a platform has been connecting with other neurodiverse people and forming communities they previously lacked. Elston says that while she’s known other people with autism or ADHD before, she never held close relationships with them, but is now a member of an Instagram group chat for neurodiverse women and nonbinary people — a sentiment other creators echoed.
Their feelings are supported by science: Micah Mazurek and Gerrit Van Schalkwyk, professors at the University of Virginia and University of Utah, respectively, tell Teen Vogue about two separate studies they conducted that confirmed the positive influence of social media in neurodiverse teenagers’ and adults’ lives. Van Schalkwyk says that neurodiverse young people who use social media tend to have stronger friendships, and more of them, than their peers who stay offline, potentially because social media “makes up for some of the differences in their communication style and plays to their strengths, in particular.”
There are profound cultural consequences of young people using their sizable platforms to reshape the narrative of neurodiversity. These five creators collectively boast around 1.4 million followers on TikTok alone, and every day, they’re working to reach new neurotypical people to educate — and, most importantly, to help neurodiverse people feel seen.
“There’s a huge audience of neurodiverse people who, for a long time, have been just kind of swept under the rug if they don’t look and sound like this very stereotypical depiction of autism that we get in the media,” Elston says.
It’s important to note that these creators are not representative of the neurodiverse community at large: all five are white women.
Dolan says that the most popular neurodiverse creators on her “For You” page all seem to be conventionally attractive white women or nonbinary people. She says it would be valuable to hear from more creators with different perspectives and experiences, particularly people who didn’t have abundant access to supportive resources growing up like she did.
“I always tell my followers, ‘If you’re just listening to me, you’re not listening,’” Layle says. “I am queer, I am disabled, but I’m white. The first thing you see about me is that I’m a white person. There are tons of Black people, tons of people of color, [who] are autistic [who] deserve representation in every way.”
Mazurek says that one factor contributing to the disparity in representation might be the fact that Black children are more likely to be diagnosed with autism at an older age compared to their white peers.
Hayden is hopeful that the most racially diverse and socially progressivegeneration in history will help expand the representation of neurodiverse people across social platforms, and uplift them offline too.
“I think Gen Z is incredible,” she says. “I think they’re really going to change the world one day. I think they see ableism […] and they see things that aren’t the way the world should be and they’re like, ‘Okay, well here’s someone who’s actually part of the community [and] trying to make a difference, let’s listen to them,’ which I think is really cool.”