I’ve been living in Paris since the start of October 2018, working as an English language teaching assistant in a primary school, a high school and an applied arts college. Before leaving Australia, I was working as a mentor and speaker with the I CAN Network and had just completed my undergraduate studies in French, Creative Writing and Linguistics.
I’ve been an Autism advocate since the age of 13, but my path to self-acceptance was anything but easy, particularly as it related to making friends. My social struggles as a child profoundly shaped my journey.
I think that because of my Autism my mind naturally works in extremes. When I was about six or seven, other people’s opinions of me started to become more important to me. I wanted them to like me, but I had no idea how to make that happen. I tried really hard, and failed even harder.
By the time I was eight or nine, I’d basically given up. I’d learned that making friends is really difficult but making enemies is easy, so I started purposely making enemies because at least that way I would still have some kind of a relationship with other people. I had convinced myself I didn’t need friends, until one lunchtime when I literally saw the true value of friendship for the first time. As usual, I was hiding in the bushes and spying on some of my classmates while they were playing soccer on the “bottom oval”, the one that could only be reached by a steep hill or a lot of steps. I was terrible at ball sports so I had no desire to play soccer with them, but clearly I still wanted to be a part of it somehow. I was also hoping one of them would see my hiding and start shouting at me, so I could shout angrily back at them. I just wanted to connect with someone my own age. A boy in my class had fallen over and injured his left leg. There was no way he could make it back up and out of there alone, but he wasn’t alone. Without even being asked, two of his friends supported him on either side and helped him all the way up. That was the moment I realised that my enemies would never do that for me. That’s what friends were for.
So after years of making enemies, I shifted my energies towards getting people to like me. This time, I was determined to pull it off. I knew everything had to go perfectly, and seemingly it did – I’d finally made some friends! Now all I had to do was keep them. I tried so hard to give them everything they wanted from me, to be the sort of person that was sure to appeal to them. In fact, I tried so hard to draw them in that I ended up pushing them away. I had turned into this cheesy, manufactured version of myself that nobody liked, me included. I learned the hard way that masking who you really are never allows you to be the best version of yourself.
Towards the end of primary school, I found the right balance. At last I hit upon that Goldilocks combination of treating others with respect while being true to myself. In the end it came down to the simple act of treating other people the way I wanted to be treated, and also expecting them to do the same for me. After my previous disastrous attempts at making every effort to please other people, what eventually allowed me to accept myself was when one classmate showed genuine interest in me and my interests. Others soon followed. Until someone showed interest in me, I had no idea how to show interest in other people without selling short huge parts of myself.
What I wish I could go back and tell my younger self – and what I’m so passionate about passing along to other Autistic kids – is that struggling to learn how to make friends is actually going to make you a better friend someday. You’ll never take your friends for granted, because you know what it’s like not to have any. You’ll know exactly how much work goes into building and maintaining a friendship, and you won’t be cutting any corners on it. Your friends will notice and appreciate your loyalty. They’ll trust you, they’ll be open with you. They’ll do their best to be as supportive of you as you are to them. They’ll stand up for you so that you don’t have to stand up for yourself all by yourself all of the time. You can finally let your guard down and start feeling like you’re truly living. You don’t have to be ridiculously popular to feel this way. All it takes is one person who sees you for you to start that process.
Your tribe is out there. You might not find them as a young person, and they might not all be exactly like you, but they are out there and they will like you for who you are. Don’t sell yourself short.