Humans on the Autism Spectrum – Caitlin, 22

I’m 22 years old and I’ve been a mentor with I CAN since 2015. I’m passionate about life, politics, music, and of course my cats and dogs. I also have a fascination with how cults work – one of the more unusual interests I’ve had over the years. I am in my first year of uni and am so proud and excited that I’ve achieved this goal. Growing up, I never thought that this would be something I’d accomplish.

From a very young age, I sensed that I was different. I desperately wanted friends but wasn’t always sure of what to do to keep them. I was the ultimate “lurker” who was on the outskirts of social circles, totally confused. I was bullied and misunderstood.

By Year 5, I became more aware of the fact that others thought I was weird. I used to spend hours watching The Bold and the Beautiful and Neighbours – apparently, without blinking much – to learn about social interactions, even though these were highly dramatised versions of life. For several years, I was obsessed with the Leveson Inquiry, which isn’t exactly something that drew other kids my age to me! It wasn’t until I got into high school that I met a small group of non-judgemental girls, some of whom are still my friends today.

My mum signed me up for the very first I CAN Young Adults camp in 2014. I was 17 years old. At first, I resisted the idea. I cringe when I think of my attitude at the time: “I don’t want to hang around with people like THAT!” I had a lot of misconceptions about Autism, especially about peers with higher support requirements. On the first evening of camp, I felt really out of place. By the end of the weekend, my mindset had shifted to seeing all of the things I had in common with my peers there. I felt like the people at camp could relate to me and how I processed the world. That was the beginning of my personal rethink on Autism and I’ve been growing in my knowledge ever since.

Being a mentor with I CAN has been such a significant part of my life for the past four years. I love working with school groups and camps, and for more than a year, I’ve been co-leading our online mentoring girls’ groups. When I think back to all of the issues I had with self-esteem and self-doubt as a teenage girl, I’m grateful that I have a chance to help others navigate their high school years. There seem to be some things that are quite common for Autistic girls to experience. It can be hard for us to find our place. When mentees come together in our groups, you can just sense the relief that comes from connecting with others who understand.  

One of the things that girls and women often face is people questioning our Autism diagnosis. Recently, a much older uni classmate told me that his partner’s cousin was on the spectrum, implying that because of this connection, he really “understood Autism”. When I mentioned that I was on the spectrum, his response was, “Really? Are you sure?!”, and then he went on to explain how “these things” like Autism and ADHD are over-diagnosed. I know it’s not my duty to educate every ignorant person, but I did enjoy setting him straight!

I find that a lot of people have their own very limited view of what Autism is, and they struggle to see past that. I’ve encountered people who believe that people with Autism can’t achieve anything. I’ve also met people who think that the only “successful” Autistic people out there are those who are doing extraordinary things. I challenge those views.

For me, what has helped the most in terms of strengthening my self-acceptance and self-confidence is to try new things. Like many other Autistic people, I like security and the safety of routine. But pushing myself out of my comfort zone over time has been so critical in helping me grow as a person. My parents have been really good at encouraging me. They haven’t hovered and they’ve given me space to make a tonne of mistakes – and they’ve reacted in a calm way when I’ve stumbled! I try to encourage the young people I work with to believe in themselves and take some chances as well. There are numerous paths to achieving your goals, and it’s okay to stumble along the way.

One of my friends recently ran into someone who was part of my support team many years ago and this person was stunned – absolutely stunned – to hear that I’ve made it to uni. Back when he knew me, I was the girl with all of the labels next to her name – Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia – that other people used to make unfair judgements about. I was the girl who wasn’t supposed to achieve anything. But I’ve learned to embrace my differences, take chances and surround myself with people who accept me – and look where I am now!

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