‘People watch me a lot more’:Alex the Astronaut dives into ASD and PTSD on new album


Even while crouching in a crab-infested crevice (photo shoots can get perilous sometimes),Clovelly has been therapeutic to Alex the Astronaut. Since the pandemic,the singer-songwriter’s gone snorkelling at the Eastern Suburbs beach three or four times a week. Underwater,she’s observed “spooky,alien stuff”,like a pod of choreographed squid who colour-shift whenever they catch her glancing. She’s befriended a blue groper named,obviously,Bluey.

“Being underwater is completely quiet and you see the same fish and the same animals hanging out together whenever you go back,it’s kind of sweet,” the 27-year-old,real name Alexandra Lynn,says. “Even though the ocean’s a brutal atmosphere and they’re all eating each other and stuff,it feels like a safe place.”

Alex the Astronaut’s typically self-reflective new album was inspired by snorkelling at Clovelly and Gordons Bay.

Alex the Astronaut’s typically self-reflective new album was inspired by snorkelling at Clovelly and Gordons Bay.Louie Douvis

What Jacques Cousteau called “the silent world” threads through Alex the Astronaut’s new album,How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater. There are repeated nods to the existential calm of spotting the same ol’ fish in the sea;throbbing drones and bubbling motifs sound like your head’s splashing in a swell. “The draft title wasHow to Keep Being Hopeful,” Lynn explains,“you know,when things have gone quite poorly.”

Eschewing the character-driven excursions that punctuated her acclaimed 2020 debutThe Theory of Absolutely Nothing,Lynn calls it her most vulnerable work yet. With her tumbling wordplay again at the fore,the album is dense. It feels like there’s a lot of life on there.

“It was a very eventful time,” Lynn laughs drily. “Too much. I have to go to therapy this afternoon,actually,and sometimes when I come in I’m just like,‘I don’t want any more events,I’m done with events!’”

Last year,while in therapy to deal with PTSD from being a full-time carer for a loved one,an experience she addresses in the songsHaunted andSick (“I don’t want to say who,but it was very difficult… It felt like an endless cycle,” she says),Lynn was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“I was already in therapy for all that other stuff mentioned on the album,so it was like,well,we’ve already got quite a lot in the mix,why not add one more thing?” Lynn jokes. “I think for me,looking after the sensory stuff directly helped the other stuff. It’s like this big puzzle,I guess.”

Alex the Astronaut’s new album,How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater,tackles her PTSD and ASD diagnosis.

Alex the Astronaut’s new album,How to Grow a Sunflower Underwater,tackles her PTSD and ASD diagnosis.Warner Music Australia

In May 2021,with the support of her friend,comedian Matt Okine,she publicly revealed her diagnosis in a stand-up set at Sydney’s Comedy Store. In the set,Lynn mentioned she’d been watchingAtypical on Netflix,a comedy series about a teenager on the autism spectrum who decides to start dating,when a realisation clicked.

“Lots of people since I was little noticed stuff I did and said,like,‘Oh,you’re so autistic’,but it didn’t feel like a good thing and so I never really saw that for me,” Lynn says. “Like,when I sawRain Man or the depictions of autism on TV,I never was like,‘I understand that’.

“InAtypical,it was mainly the character wearing noise-cancelling headphones. I’ll notice,especially in airports,I’ll wear my noise-cancelling headphones and feel completely calm and then take them off and be like,‘Nope,not yet.’ There were a few social quirks I had that friends sometimes commented on,but it was mostly the sensory stuff.”

In an interview with disability activist Dylan Alcott earlier this year,Lynn said she’s keen to speak about her experience with autism because of the stigma and misinformation that exists around the condition. She’s already noticed sly differences in the way people respond to her since she revealed her diagnosis.

“People watch me a lot more,I’ve noticed that. A little look in their eyes like they’re looking for something,trying to figure out what it is,” she says. “It’s kind of annoying. ’Cause you’re like,‘I’m not any different?’ I think some of that is just a lack of education. And so why I want to talk about it,I guess,is firstly just because I talk about everything[laughs],but also to show it’s such a diverse group of people and there are lots of different experiences.”

Lynn says getting diagnosed at 25 also meant she already had her own ideas around autism that needed reframing.

“Like,at first,I was super embarrassed. I didn’t expect to be because I’d gone through the process for a long time - it takes a while to be tested,you have to pay a fair amount of money and then you wait six months on a waiting list and then you finally get there. But when I got the diagnosis I was like,‘I don’t actually know what to do with this.’ I felt embarrassed. The only thing I knew about it wasRain Man,Big Bang Theory,and like when people say,‘Oh,I think that guy’s a bit autistic.’ All negative. So I didn’t want to tell people.”

“Destigmatising all of it,that was a good learning thing for me.”

“Destigmatising all of it,that was a good learning thing for me.”Jamie Heath

She says she felt like a veil had been lifted where other people could see something about her that even she didn’t realise;that even if she felt like everyone else,they could spot she was different.

“It took me a while,” Lynn says. “I got to the point where I was like,‘Look,I know that I do have actual friends and not everyone is just being nice to me[laughs]. I know that I’m not Sheldon fromThe Big Bang Theory,the butt of the joke or anything like that.’ And then I realised,far out,no one is like that! Everyone has their own quirks and personalities and I shouldn’t say,‘Oh,I’m not them,I’m different. I’m the good type of autistic!’ Destigmatising all of it,that was a good learning thing for me.”

Therapy has helped. She’s done it since high school,says Lynn,when she couldn’t sleep. And she’s continued it.

“I saw lots of different therapists and I found the therapist that I liked,like,four years ago,which was very good timing,” she says. “I love it. It’s so fun and they’re so smart;it’s like a friend on steroids. Like,given they’re trained and it’s a science and all of that,they can give you good advice. I think everyone should get to go,because it’s so good for you.”

The bouncyOctopus,where Lynn sings,“I think I’m like an octopus sometimes,trying so hard to blend in,forgot that I’ve something I could give,” is the only song on the album that directly addresses her diagnosis - so much so that her original title for it wasAutism. But other tracks also highlight Lynn’s typically big-hearted songwriting,including the life-affirming lead singleHaircut.

The song,the album’s buoyant closer,finds Lynn continuing her self-exploration around her queer identity. An ever-wordy chorus where she sings,“Since I cut my hair,I’ve been feeling so much better,but it was more than that,now the mirror looks back and I feel like I’m supposed to”,gives goosebumps with its celebration of hard-won self-acceptance. Lynn says she shaved her head in May 2020 to help raise PPE funds for COVID nurses,and immediately felt transformed.

“I remember being like,‘Oh,this is weird.’ I wish everyone could experience that because I think then everyone would have a lot more understanding. Because I never knew anything about gender,I never even thought about it until I cut my hair and then all of a sudden it was like,‘Oh,maybe there’s something else that I didn’t understand about myself.’

“I thought I’d done a pretty good job of like,you know,I came out,I’ve diligently walked the line as a LGBTQ person,and then... It was kind of like the autism thing. There was a lot of like,‘Nah,this is not a thing. Wait,yes I think this is a thing.’ And now it’s just like,I don’t really get it,but it’s just there and I’ve gotta keep exploring it.”

Alex the Astronaut’sHow to Grow a Sunflower Underwater is out on July 22. She will perform at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on August 19.

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Robert Moran is Spectrum Deputy Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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