When I turned 20 back in January 2009 I was depressed, newly diagnosed as autistic, and so wracked by anxiety that just the five minute walk to the local shops was a harrowing ordeal. I’d just lost my Dad, I was about to move out of home to start Uni, and I was absolutely terrified of what lay ahead for me. The future seemed like a tsunami rolling towards me, obliterating the horizon.
The first step was one of the hardest; moving 400 kilometres away from the tiny country town I’d grown up in to live on campus at La Trobe University in Melbourne. It was totally alien environment, and I knew almost nobody there.
Fortunately for me, the RAs for my dorm, (Residential Assistants, basically second year students whose job it was to look after the newbies) were two amazingly supportive and understanding individuals named Mez and Damo. They went out of their way to try to defuse my anxieties, always offering a patient listening ear and calmly explaining to me that no, I wasn’t going to die from accidentally standing on a discarded tissue, walking on the floor of my room hours later, picking up a pen off that floor, then rubbing my eye.
Also, thanks to my first mobile phone, which I’d received as a moving out gift, my Mum was always only a phone call away. I’m sure I drove her up the wall with all the times I called her at work or at 2am, but her support kept me going when the anxiety became too much to handle.
I struggled to make friends at first due to being extremely socially awkward, but in a funny way my autism came the rescue as I adopted a hyperactive, stimming-based style of dancing at the frequent Uni parties that turned out to be a great icebreaker.
Gradually, I began to form closer connections with a small number of fellow students who were especially understanding and accepting.
By the end of my second year, however, a new problem had arisen. I’d made friends, but my lack of any romantic or sexual success, particularly in an environment where everyone else seemed to be doing well for themselves, had left me feeling lonely, self-loathing, and frustrated with myself. This seething darkness inside me eventually boiled over into self-harm, which culminated the following year when I accidentally went too far and ended up in the emergency room. Lying in that hospital bed, I made a promise to myself: never again. That was more than seven years ago, and I haven’t self-harmed since.
Funnily enough, the next year, at the ripe old age of 23, I had my first romantic relationship. She was an international student a few years older than me, and to this day one of the kindest, gentlest, most understanding people I have ever met. She was completely unphased by my laundry list of quirks, or the fact that I had no experience.
After so much hardship, things finally seemed to be going well. Then my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having lost my father, I was now faced with the very real possibility of losing my mother as well. It was a terrifying time, and I was profoundly thankful for my girlfriend’s unwavering support, but in the end Mum pulled through and made a full recovery.
My girlfriend and I eventually broke up after 18 months together, but we remain friends to this day.
At 24, I graduated University and moved out to a flat in the suburbs with my younger brother, and started looking for work. At this point, I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with my life; I knew I loved writing, but that’s a very broad skill that can translate into a thousand different careers. I felt lost, adrift in life without a compass to steer by.
My friends had been urging me for some time to try blogging; I fobbed them off for ages by saying I didn’t even know what I’d write about and nobody would want to read it anyway, but in early 2014 I finally gave in and started writing what I knew; life on the spectrum.
As it happened, my work was read by somebody who worked at Asperger’s Victoria, and they got in touch and said they’d like to meet me. From there I started volunteering at a local support group they ran for young adults at the spectrum, and it was there that I met a guy named Chris Varney, who told me about this idea he had for an organization run by autistics, for autistics, which would focus on the strengths and positives of the spectrum. It would be called the I CAN Network.
This idea spoke to me on a deep level; not only was it absolutely brilliant, but I was struck by how much it would’ve helped me to have had such a program back when I was first diagnosed. I wanted to be involved in any way I could, so when Chris asked me to help out with I CAN Network’s first camp for adults on the spectrum, I jumped at the chance.
Over time, I CAN Network grew, and I started taking on an increasingly active role within it. I became the editor of the company blog, a mentor first at camps then later also in schools, and a public speaker. Whenever I thought I couldn’t handle something, Chris and my other colleagues would push me to give it a try, in much the same way as my father had before he passed away, and in almost every instance, it turned out I could handle it after all.
The Network’s positive approach to the spectrum began to rub off on me, and for the first time in my life I began to feel at peace with my diagnosis; that it wasn’t some external poltergeist out to make things difficult for me, but an intrinsic part of who I was that had just as many positives as negatives. Furthermore, working alongside so many other autistics was and still is an amazing experience.
And so, as I stand today on the cusp of turning thirty, I have come further in my twenties than I ever dared to imagine at their outset. I’ve moved out of home, graduated University, found my calling in life, and I now do things in the course of my work that at twenty I never dreamed I could be capable of, like mentoring a class of sixteen autistic teenagers or helping run a camp for forty.
There were certainly ups and downs along the way, but that’s just life; if I’d started my twenties at sea level, I’d now be high enough to need an oxygen tank.
As I look ahead to my thirties, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel some fear about what lies ahead. But this time, I also feel a great sense of hope and excitement. If the last decade has taught me anything, it’s that there will be challenges, there will be setbacks, but there will also be opportunities beyond my wildest dreams, and it’s up to me to take hold of them with both hands.