My first autism conference speech
Phew, so I survived giving my speech at Wednesday’s autism conference at La Trobe University. My nerves were like guitar strings being strummed by a spider monkey on meth, but somehow I got through it.
For those of you who weren’t there, I thought I’d share it in text form, so you can tell me if I’m full of it. 😉
“Kind of interesting being back here, I think the last time I was in this room I was trying not to fall asleep during a lecture on Marxism. Not the lecturer’s fault of course, it was the day after Eagle Bar night.
For me, autism can be a lot like having my own personal poltergeist. He follows me everywhere with a giant bag of epipens.
Sometimes, when someone sneezes near me or a stranger touches me, he’ll shoot me up with a cocktail of adrenaline and ice water.
Other times, when I think of an idea for a short story or I’ve just gotten some good news, it’ll be an epipen full of espresso, and I’ll be so full of energy I have to dance and flap around to let it out, and I can just sit down and blast through an article or an assignment in one sitting.
Everything is raw, uncensored, straight into my veins.
I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was 19, a year before I started University. During my childhood, I was labelled as “gifted”. And that gave me a very positive sense of identity. I knew I found some things more difficult than other kids my age, so it was reassuring to know that in other ways I was ahead of the curve. It gave me something to be proud of.
I was aware of the poltergeist back then, but I just thought of it as part of me.
Once I was diagnosed, a lot of things made sense, but I also externalized the poltergeist, I thought of it as this foreign influence trying to sabotage my life. A disease to be cured.
It took me a few years to get to the point where I realized I’d been right as a kid; that this was just a part of who I was, with just as many pros as cons.
My first three years at University were very difficult; I struggled to make friends because socializing didn’t come naturally to me, I’d miss classes because of my anxiety, I suffered from depression.
But one thing I did get right is that from the beginning, I was upfront about the fact that I had autism, and because of that, I was ultimately able to get the support I needed. The University were able to explain my condition to my teachers, so they’d understand if, say, I needed to leave the room for a few minutes, or needed a few more days to finish an assignment.
I think if I had to give one piece of advice to young people on the spectrum who are going through University, it would probably be to be open about your challenges. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you’re going through, and bottling it up only makes it worse. Trust me, you’ll be surprised how understanding people can be.
Over time, things got better. I learned to manage my challenges, and I was able to graduate with a bachelor in social sciences and a postgrad in journalism.
I was lucky enough to be on a disability support pension, which I used to pay for food and accommodation at Uni, but once I graduated, this became a bit of a conundrum.
On the one hand I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with full time work, but on the other, I felt guilty for living off welfare without giving something back to society.
I looked into volunteer work, and signed up to do meals on wheels. A few months later, Asperger’s Victoria read a blog article I’d written, and invited me to help run a support group for young adults with autism. From there, I got involved with the I Can Network, which is an NGO that focuses on the strengths and talents of people on the spectrum.
Now, these are all volunteer positions, and technically I still live on welfare, but this way I can contribute something, which as well as doing wonders for my self-esteem, also helped me get out there, meet people and make friends. Since all three are part time jobs, they’re divided into shifts of around two hours here and there, which I can usually handle without stressing out. I tried 9 hour shifts while on placement at Uni, and I went to bits like a gingerbread man in the blender.
Honestly, my biggest fear right now, regarding my future, is that I’ll be forced to leave these part time positions for a “real” job. I love the work I do now, and honestly, but I feel I’m doing more good delivering meals to the elderly and helping support people with autism than, say, flipping burgers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with jobs like that, but it’s a round hole, and I’m a square peg.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about having autism, it’s that it’s not just about minimizing the negatives, it’s also about maximizing the positives. I don’t see myself as disabled, I see myself as differently abled.
I don’t want to be cured, I want to be supported and accepted.
People with autism are so much more than just their challenges. I know people on the spectrum who can tell you where they were, what they were doing, what the weather was like, and what day of the week it was on June 10th 1997, or who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds.
And yet, despite having these remarkable minds, 66% of adults with autism are unemployed. 66%. That’s huge. That’s higher than the unemployment rate for people with physical disabilities. And it’s not just a loss for these adults on the spectrum, but also for our economy and our society, because this enormous reservoir of talent is going unrecognized.
Maybe, instead of trying to force square pegs into round holes, we should be making some square holes, so that people with autism can flourish to their full potential.
We may have our challenges, but when we leverage our autistic talents and passions, the sky’s the limit.