If you missed Year 11 student, Jade Cuskelly’s, winning performance in BSSC’s Got Talent back in June, don’t despair; she’ll be back in 2022 to wow us all over again.

When Jade was just six years old she saw a musical version of The Wizard of Oz. As she watched and listened to Dorothy she realised she wanted to be her.

The dream has never died and Jade’s yellow brick road journey into musical theatre is a central part of her life.

“I’ve come so far and had incredible opportunities,” she says. “Despite lots of challenges, it’s been so much fun!”

Jade had her first singing lesson at age seven and now works with singing teacher, Kristie Woodward, who teaches performance as well as voice.

“Broadway is the ultimate dream,” she says, “but as long as my career revolves around musical theatre, I’ll be very satisfied.”

She hopes to follow in the steps of successful Aussies to the renowned Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), but accepts she may need uni qualifications to smooth her path.

And Jade’s path has not always been smooth.

Year 9 saw her develop significantly as a performer, however, she was also diagnosed with autism that year.

It came as a tremendous relief; suddenly she understood why she found certain situations so challenging and why she responded intensely to seemingly simple events.

“I’d felt for so long there was something wrong that I couldn’t explain,” Jade says. “Realising I was neuro-diverse… so many things made sense. It was the greatest feeling.”

‘Meltdowns’ can be a feature of autism and Jade explains these overwhelming moments using the metaphor of an extra drop of water added to already completely full bucket.

“It’s about being overloaded with sensory input,” she explains. “These days I can feel when they’re building and I try to calm myself, or let someone know what’s going on.”

Breathing exercises, a quiet space, or putting on soundproof headphones can often ease these moments for Jade.

Despite all the challenges, she believes there are many positives to neuro-diversity.

“People might not appreciate how autism can bring some fantastic capacities,” Jade says. “Like an amazing ability to focus.”

From a performance point of view, it means she’s able to immerse herself so completely into a character, she virtually becomes that character.

“You could call me a method actor because of this immersion,” Jade says. “When I was playing Fantine in Les Miserables, her death scene was an incredibly intense experience for me.”

Jade is presently in rehearsals for Cats and is understudy for the lead role in Arena’s upcoming performance of Robot Song.

The casting for Robot Song—a story about the bullying experiences of a student with autism—has greatly impressed Jade because Arena has selected neuro-diverse people for characters who have autism.

Jade, too, was bullied in the past, but awful memories have lost some of their sting as her self-confidence has evolved and past experiences enrich roles such as this one.

“I’m good at looking at things from another person’s perspective,” she says, “but I wish neuro-typical people understood neuro-diversity better.”

With this in mind, one of the positive experiences Jade had during orientation to BSSC was seeing a poster about autism that made her feel optimistic about the college.

“I felt this great sense that I would find my place here,” she says.

Her expectations have been more than met.

“The teachers are just incredible,” Jade says. “They seem to have been trained to both teach their subject and support the mental health and wellbeing of their students. Issues such as autism are taken seriously.

“At BSSC I feel respected as an individual and when I stress in class, my teachers don’t get upset. I’m allowed to wear my headphones if I need to.”

Remote learning was, in Jade’s experience, “pretty shit”, despite the innate enjoyment of being on her own.

“It just made the things I find hard even harder—like socialising and getting my work organized. I didn’t perform either very well,” she says

Luckily Jade has heaps of support at home. Her mum is the person she is most grateful for.

“I wouldn’t have progressed musically without her,” Jade says. “She pushed me and supported me the whole way.

“While Mum didn’t know much about neuro-diversity before my diagnosis, she’s now committed to understanding autism and helping me negotiate the NDIS. I have no words to adequately thank her.”

If Jade could have a conversation with anyone living or dead, her grandmother would be at the top of her list.

“She passed away recently,” Jade explains. “I’d love to tell her that I’m going to sing her favourite song in a performance soon.

“I’d also love to ask diva, Patty LuPone, or Broadway star, Andrew Rannells, for advice and maybe sing for them and receive feedback.”

And if Jade could go back and offer some advice to her 12-year-old self, she’d tell her it’s okay to be different.

“Work on yourself for yourself—not to meet the expectations of others. Oh, and tell your mum to take you to someone who can diagnose your autism right now.