The Early Link – Friendship on the Spectrum

Join us Sundays at 4:30pm for new episodes of The Early Link Podcast. Listen live at 99.1 FM in the heart of Portland – or online anywhere at PRP.fm.

This week, host Rafael Otto speaks with Jenna Deml, our producer at Portland Radio Project, and two of her lifelong friends, Kai Russell and Justin Semke. All three of them happen to be on the autism spectrum, and today we have a chance to hear their stories – about what it was like growing up on the spectrum, how they have remained friends for so many years, and their experience in the education system right here in Portland.


Jenna Deml (she/her) is a podcast producer and radio DJ currently studying for her Master’s in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Oregon Portland campus. Her undergraduate degree was in both Psychology and Theatre Arts from the University of Puget Sound. So it is safe to say Jenna has always had a love for the arts and storytelling. In her free time, she likes to play Dungeons & Dragons, flex her trivia knowledge on a website called Sporcle, create Spotify playlists, watch the entire Studio Ghibli catalog on repeat, pet every cat or dog she sees, or read classic sci-fi/dystopian literature. 

Kai Martina Russell (they/them) is native to Portland, Oregon. They hold a degree in English Fiction Writing from Pacific Lutheran University and are employed in the retail industry. Their dream is to write and illustrate (and possibly compose for) an original fantasy/science-fiction extended universe, drawing inspiration from the many roleplaying games they and their friends have acted out over the years. Kai draws meaning in their life from stories, nature, and their beloved friends and family.

Justin Semke (he/him) graduated from the Art Institute of Portland, and has been looking to become an 3D Environmental artist. He is also quite the fan of Kamen Rider, and loves creating stories with friends. He is a staunch optimist and tries to make the people in his life smile whenever possible.


The three friends begin by recounting how they each met one another at different points throughout elementary school. They then disclose what lead to their diagnoses; what they remember about it, what changed for them, and any struggles they had at the time. The conversation shifts to their respective experiences in the education system here in Portland, and what the institution needs to improve on in order to better serve neurodivergent children. Since Kai identifies as genderfluid, they note and comment on the correlation between neurodivergence and gender-nonconformity, and how this ties in to their own personal journey. Closing out the conversation, the three each state what they would say to their younger selves, and comment on who and what makes them the most empowered to be their truest creative selves.   


Additional Resources:

Identity First Language

Asperger, Nazism, and Reclaiming the Autism Spectrum (made by Jenna Deml)

Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network



Rafael Otto, Director of Communications, Children’s Institute

~ Thanks to Children’s Institute, working to ensure that every child in Oregon has the best start in life

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