I am a 31-year-old, one-time entomologist who now manages the Queensland branch of the I CAN Network. I’m also a tour guide in the Gold Coast hinterland and run environmental education sessions during the school holidays. In addition, I run a small woodwork shop and build fine furniture from recycled and reclaimed timber (see picture below). I lead a varied life.
At 17, when I had dropped out of high school after years of struggle, I couldn’t have imagined the life I am enjoying now. Back then, life at school seemed like a series of brick walls. I had high aptitude scores but performed poorly in most of my classes. Although there were some teachers who made accommodations for my differences, I felt lost in a system that rewarded a very narrow set of attributes. The deputy principal at my school told me that at the rate I was going, I would never graduate from high school or progress further in my education. “If you don’t learn how to manage your assignments now, how are you going to manage at university?”
I started to believe that I was not capable. It took more than six years from the time I dropped out of high school to find my way to university. My path included an unsuccessful attempt at TAFE and a much more favourable part-time experience, years later, at Open University to get my high school equivalency.
Once I got to university full-time, I thrived. Far from being totally unprepared, I fell right into the groove of things. I loved being able to study subjects that fascinated me and meeting other people who shared those same interests. And I had professors who loved teaching weird and quirky students because they themselves were weird and quirky, too.
One of the best parts of being a mentor is that I can be a source of encouragement for Autistic students who might be facing some of the same struggles I had in high school. To them, I’d like to say: life is waiting for you to live it. Pursue your interests passionately and eventually you’ll find people willing to share them with you. High school may feel like the whole universe but it is an unimaginably small slice of the human population and of life in general. Trust me. There’s way more out there than you can know.
To the caring parents and teachers who might be worried that their child or student isn’t meeting certain milestones, I would like to assure you that there is always another path to a fulfilled life. I am proof of that. Please also know that there can be a fine line between encouraging skill development and scaring an Autistic young person into thinking that they will never achieve a certain goal. When we hear, “If you don’t learn how to do this now, how will you ever survive (in high school/at uni/on your own)?”, we may begin to doubt our abilities. Just because we can’t do something now doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to achieve it in the future. And finally, please don’t be embarrassed by your own passions, no matter how “unusual”. When adults are enthusiastic about the things they love, it makes Autistic kids feel like it’s okay to do the same.
As a society, we need to flip the way we view Autism. Instead of always highlighting “deficits” and “costs”, we need to take a step back and recognise that Autism is really quite useful. Coming at things from a different direction allows Autistic people to find solutions to problems that others might miss. In ecology there is a concept called the diversity = strength hypothesis: that is, a really diverse ecosystem will have a lot of capacity to adapt to change. I think human ecosystems fit this model perfectly. The more diverse we are, the more opportunities we can seize as a society.
The truth is, there’s a lot that’s great about being Autistic: our focus, our drive, our willingness to walk a different path. It’s not just important for Autistic people that we’re accepted, it’s important for humanity. We only got to the moon because of Autistic people. And do you really believe that the first early human to pick up a rock, sharpen it, tie it to a stick and make an axe wasn’t Autistic, too? Diversity = strength.