I’m 23 and love video games, music and mindfulness. Currently, I’m doing my placement for my Social Work degree at uni during the day and leading online mentoring groups several nights each week. I’ve been an I CAN mentor since 2016, and I helped create the online mentoring program that we launched in 2017.
A lot of kids come to our programs feeling misunderstood or unsupported. Some haven’t had the chance to connect with peers on the spectrum. Often, they associate their Autism with something negative. In our groups, we spend a lot of time celebrating interests, talking about our individual strengths and exploring what it means to be Autistic.
If you’re comfortable with your Autistic identity, and you see Autism through a strengths-based lens, that can make a huge difference in your ability to get through life and deal with challenges that inevitably occur. But it takes practice. It doesn’t just happen overnight. I’m proud of who I am and pretty outspoken about that, but I do have days every now and then when I am struggling and looking for something to blame. It would be easy to blame Autism, and that’s where self-reflection comes in. I try to remind myself of the same advice I give my mentees: be kind to yourself and know that you will get through this.
I use a lot of my past experiences to help guide my mentees. For instance, growing up, I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve and have a purpose in everything I did. Now I’ve become better at admitting when I’m struggling, setting boundaries and just allowing myself time to disconnect and come up for air by reading, taking a walk or baking. That’s a good lesson for younger Autistics, too.
I’ve also discovered how important it is to be myself, just as I am, not who society says I should be. I’ve always been a quirky type and not very feminine, and I didn’t really fit the mould of what most of the other girls were like. There were some boys who gave me a hard time because of that. I remember giving into the pressure to wear make-up to parties, family events and friend gatherings – I hate make-up – because I feared I would look ugly and like a total weirdo without it. The make-up was a form of masking who I really was.
When you mask, it’s suffocating. It’s almost like you can’t breathe. When I encourage my mentees to “be unapologetically you”, I am essentially saying, “Let yourself breathe.” If you’re not yourself, you’re not going to feel good. The reason that so many people are struggling with self-esteem issues is because most of the time, they aren’t being themselves.
From what I’ve experienced personally and seen with my mentees, Autistic young people often feel huge pressure to mask. Adults, too. A lot of that can come from the messages that society sends about Autism being bad or insisting on things like eye contact that might be uncomfortable for us but make us look “more normal”. Sometimes parents might encourage their Autistic child to behave in a certain way to avoid being bullied or excluded – and even though this encouragement is well intended and comes from a place of love and worry – it adds pressure for kids on the spectrum to hide who they really are. I wish society as a whole placed more emphasis on accepting differences rather than signalling to us that we are the ones who need to change.
There are many ways that people who aren’t on the spectrum can help with that acceptance. For starters, please listen to us. It’s so important to learn about Autism from people who are actually Autistic. Take the time – really take the time – to get to know us and understand us. This goes for so-called “Autism experts”, too, who have their own biases and don’t always consider our lived experience in their work. It’s impossible to understand us if you are looking at us as a problem to solve or view Autism as some sort of “tragic disorder”.
When people focus on the negatives and frame Autism as a tragedy, it makes everyone miserable – especially us. And that’s just such a waste of time. My hope is that over time, word will get around to everyone that Autism isn’t something negative. When more people see Autism as a positive, that will drastically reduce the stigma that exists and will provide us more opportunities to show what we can do. Please give us that chance.
A few days ago, one of our mentees, Jordan, was featured in “Humans on the Autism Spectrum”. It makes me so proud knowing that I am doing something that helps Autistic students see themselves through a strength-based lens. The sooner and more often kids get those positive messages, the better. If she’s this confident in her Autism at 11, just think about what the future can hold! It’s awesome to be a part of the change.