Jennifer O’Connor competed to be Ireland’s first openly autistic Rose of Tralee in 2022. The festival, which started in 1959, this year returned after two years of Covid-19 restrictions. Jen, who works as our Adult Support and Wellbeing Officer, saw the international festival as a great way to showcase and celebrate her place in the autistic community. Having finished her time competing, Jen sat down with us to look back on her experience.
Have you always wanted to compete in the Rose of Tralee?
I’m a Kerry woman and if you’re from even the surrounding area it’s hard to avoid Rose of Tralee! It’s the time of the year when Tralee really comes to life and feels its best. But as a child it felt very separate to me. I didn’t know I was autistic as a child but I knew I was different from the other girls. Even though I loved things like princesses and the formality of it, it never reached me. I’d look at the Roses and it felt so beyond me but I couldn’t put words to that difference.
As a child, a massive part of that was seeing the Roses on the parade floats. It’s a big part of the experience. As the floats stopped on the street people would stop to get autographs or chat to one of the Roses. It was a big deal if one of them waved at you or stopped to chat with you. Girls would come back to school with their autographs and stories about which Roses they talked to. I wanted to do the same but the noise of the events or the lights on the floats or the pushing of the crowds would be overwhelming. I was keenly aware this didn’t seem like a barrier to anyone else.
Even as I grow older it continued. For teenagers it’s more about street music and festivities so going into town to hang out was the activity. My friends seemed to deal very well with the lack of predictability but I could never relax. I just thought it meant I was uptight or high maintenance or all those words we throw around for women. I couldn’t articulate that sense of overwhelm. As I got older I got more effective at masking, which isn’t the best strategy. I’d be able to have a night out at Rose of but when I got home I’d have to sit in absolute darkness and decompress. My parents had no idea what was going on but they trusted me to know what I needed.
I’d hear locals saying ‘it’ll be you up on those floats one day’ but it all felt so beyond me, because even watching the Roses was overwhelming. I watched things like Disney princess movies with an almost clinical edge as a child. I tried to navigate precisely what people liked about these girls. Not just how they looked; how they acted and even how they interacted; I pored over their behaviour. When you get to the age of ten you start to get aware people aren’t thinking as much about these things as you are.
When it came up this time, I had my diagnosis and I realized there was nothing stopping me. Now I knew I was autistic the Rose of Tralee didn’t seem so distant. There was nothing inherently wrong with who I was; there was a difference I could tangibly understand and put words on. It felt like there was now a door I’d closed on myself suddenly open.
People might be surprised at an autistic person going up in front of crowds. Does public speaking make you anxious?
It’s interesting because I have an older sister but so we’re very close in age. So I thought I could do anything she did but she was a much more precocious child. My mum obviously didn’t have the context of me being autistic. She thought I was very shy, so it was suggested that I go to stage school.
I was there for quite a few years and it did improve my confidence, but I didn’t enjoy it particularly. I would have preferred a writing course where I could to use my imagination rather than follow a script. Since then, I’ve never really found public speaking to be very stressful. I find it hard to forget the humanity of everyone, that they’re just individual people in the crowd. It’s almost like the fallibility of everyone is obvious to me, including myself.
When I joined my school’s public speaking and debating teams I couldn’t relate to how nervous people were. I feel like if we’re all just trying our best, there was nothing to panic about. Even when I was in college I wrote a few academic papers and attended conferences. It was the same there. Whether they’re a student or a Professor Emeritus: To me it was just it was people trying. I’m very lucky that I somewhat detached from that and it doesn’t feel tied to my self-worth. So in my case even though there’s a lot of presenting yourself in Rose of Tralee being autistic is actually a benefit for me in that sense.
Many Roses showcase a special skill or talent for the judges. Did you do something like this?
Yes there’s space for contestants to show their skill and creativity. One of the girls is great at playing musical instruments and another is really incredible Irish dancer. I’m actually going to be writing an original piece about performing it. It’s about growing up autistic during the different years of the Rose of Tralee and the different aspects of it. I can still picture being 6 and seeing the lights on the Main Street of Tralee and where they got these Rose-shaped LED lights and I thought they were genius. Seeing them light for the first time, I still remember thinking that nothing would ever feel that good. It was like I could feel the electricity in my cells because it was so beautiful.
I think part of being autistic that’s never really talked about outside the community is the joy that can come with that kind of sensory euphoria. We don’t get to put the joy of being autistic front and center much because the conversations often about the barriers we face. Those conversations are important too. But sometimes it’s good to remember that when you feel joy about something truly, you tend to feel it with your whole body. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have a lack of fear about the stage I guess.
The Rose of Tralee stresses that it’s not a beauty pageant but a search for the right personality. Does that reflect your experience?
They say quite often to us, that they take a holistic view of a whole of the person or something. When you’re watching it or experiencing the street entertainment or watching the floats you don’t actually know how much of a whole-person view they talk. Whereas being on this side of it, it’s actually incredibly little to do with your appearance really. The application form was quite lengthy and asked us a lot about our personal interests, things we liked we disliked about the world, what we wished we could change, and what we valued in Irish society but wider society.
It did ask for a photograph, but only for the program down the line. It’s so much more about your journey as a person to become to come this far. They do have certain guidelines around things like dress code and like but that’s mainly so everyone looks kind of similar in photos rather than anything, but they definitely do tend to bring out the individuality in each person, like for example.
There’s one of the girls who played, played traditional music in 11 countries and she’s also exceptionally funny and another who’s an amazing singer. It’s much more about how character driven you are and they do give you a lot of opportunities for that to come through. It’s mostly about how you communicate who you are rather than how you look.
You’ve talked about other Roses with their own support needs. Do you think the Rose of Tralee is committed to diversity when it comes to disability?
I think diversity is an openly welcomed thing. They really don’t pressure you to disclose any kind of additional needs you might have. But they are trying to make it in a way that you would feel comfortable to. For example with, there’s a lovely girl Emma Brown and she is a wheelchair user. Like she would have disclosed on her application that if she had some kind of additional need and that was an optional section of the application.
They’re very much aware and have been incredible in terms of coordinating. Everything we’ve been at has been exceptionally accessible, including our transportation, where we’ve eaten and the places we’ve visited: There’s no point where I felt I couldn’t disclose my needs. Everything is quite carefully thought about by the team. Part of that is because the team themselves are quite diverse and their needs so it’s almost like a diverse team informs diverse actions.
We were doing an event at the Kingdom County Fair where were going across quite uneven and hilly ground. I think pretty much all the girls wore heels and but for me with my EDS it was an additional kind of challenge because the uneven ground would be a struggle because it can make your ankles and toes dislocate much easier if I did it in flats let alone heels. In the end I wore Wellingtons and that was incredibly encouraged. Emma likewise has certain access needs with her wheelchair that are set up beforehand.
There was a moment when we got in the bus for our day out in Dingle which was a 12 hour day and we got on the bus at around 9:00 AM and everyone was immediately singing and talking. I’m not great with mornings and I really needed quiet time. Susan, the centre’s coordinator sat down next to me and asked if I needed some time or to be left alone and I explained I just needed to decompress for a minute and she was like “do what you have to and let me know if there’s anything I can help you.” They mean that in a very sincere way. I think as autistic people we’ve had that said in an insincere way quite a few times, and you tend to know the difference.
How have your family reacted to you taking part? Were they supportive?
Initially they were concerned about me going into sensory overload. For me it doesn’t necessarily cause any kind of meltdown or anything. But it does cause a shutdown when I would just completely lose all energy in my body. It’s like I don’t have a spine, I just can’t even hold myself up. So they expressed their concerns, but more in a way of asking what they could do to help.
I think they were concerned I might not disclose my diagnosis to the committee and that I’d be masking the whole time but I said I was going to do this as openly autistic or not at all. And that makes such a huge difference when you start as you mean to go on. They’ve been incredibly supportive. They’ve driven me places and lent me a lot of clothes and done my hair, that kind of thing. Things that I guess take the mental pressure off before I even have to leave the door.
It’s a case sometimes of reminding me of things that I might not be thinking of. I might be thinking “Oh I need a pin to keep on my sash” whereas in reality my mom’s like “yeah but you also need to bring a snack because you know how you feel about that this time of the day.” In terms of my grandparents, they’re very excited because they were around when the Rose of Tralee started and they’ve never had family taking part in it.
It’s not as if they’ve been expressing doubts to me, but they have left the air open for me to say if I’m finding something overwhelming and for them to come in and help. Sometimes it’s literally a case of like coming home and having dinner ready versus having to make it yourself. That can be the make or break. I think it shows in the years since my diagnosis, how much we’ve all learned about it and how much I’ve learned about expressing needs and whereas before I kind of would have repressed them and then not realize why I was tired or exhausted so.
What does representation mean for you? Would it have changed things if you’d seen autistic Roses when you were a girl?
I think it would have been helpful to see any kind of difference. I come from a family where there were quite a lot of physical disabilities. Growing up I realized early on that not every family had that representation. I could see the difference even between my friends when we talk about disability. You know when you’re a child everything seems kind of new and big and scary, and those conversations about disability feel alarming. So it was great to see Roses with physical disabilities or who were neurodivergent.
I suppose when you are a step removed, it’s easy to be sceptical and say that it’s not. It’s only now being on this side of the process I can see the people who are running it and open they are to those conversations. They’re open to making it work even if it means maybe an extra phone call or liaising with the hotel for an extra little bit time to know what kinds of foods are available.
In conversations I’ve had in the background with the organizers and it’s never a case of feeling like it’s a box-ticking thing. It’s a genuine embrace they have about it, and a welcome. I think it’s part of a broader trend because aside from Rose of Tralee because the town’s Patrick’s Day fair recently had a sensory section for autistic people. It was quiet with no music or things like that. And that was blissful compared to some of the intense bagpipes and things. Tralee also works very closely with the autism-friendly towns.
I suppose I’ve been less focused on what would have helped me when I was younger and more focused on the little girls you’re seeing now. Some children come up to you when you’re wearing the sash; it’s like you’re more accessible or something. You’re not just a person, you’re a Rose. They’ll talk to you about their aims and their goals and their dreams and want to see if they could take part. They’re very quick to believe that they could never do it.
I represented AsIAm at Employability fair last week in the Rose Hotel in Tralee. They asked me to wear the Rose of Tralee sash because there were a lot of young people there who would not expect an autistic person to take part. I wondered how much just doing my job would make a difference whereas actually quite a few young people came up to me.
Children from like the age of 5 to 16. Some were wearing ear defenders, some with sunflower lanyards. They and their carers or siblings talked about things like school and what they want to do in life. The idea of something like the Rose of Tralee felt so out of reach to so many people until we spoke.
One little girl told me she was autistic and when I said I’m autistic too she replied, “yeah, but I’m not like you. People won’t like me.” I remember that fear of not being accepted so we actually sat down and was I was talking to her for quite a while about it. In reality her only blocker was the fact that people labelled her with a stigma of autism.
She actually perceived her diagnosis as a massive positive in her life. She said when she was leaving “well I guess that there’s no one actually in my way anymore.” But these were conversations that many of their parents said to me after would have been daunting to have because they wouldn’t have wanted to give their children, maybe false hope. And then they were like, “at the end of the day, seeing you, there is no difference between you and my child except 20 years.”
There are some nonbinary kids that said they didn’t know if they wanted to be a Rose or an escort in the future. I was like, ‘well, you’ve got the choices! Maybe you’ll do both who knows?’ That’s kind of made me realize how much representation matters. I am aware of how I come across and my disabilities are invisible. And I’m also white and all of these things, so it’s not like I’m the be-all and end-all of representation. But it tells you what one droplet of representation does!