Content warning: mention of suicide
I’m 38 and I work part time as an I CAN mentor and network leader in the Goulburn-Murray region. I enjoy reading and finding ideas for things online. I have a wonderful husband who is very understanding and always willing to listen. I am also the proud mother of two Autistic children, who love me just as I am.
For me, Autism is an explanation of why I am different and why I sometimes feel like I don’t fit. Understanding Autism helps me to stop trying to be something I cannot be and feeling that I should be doing something “better”. Instead, I accept how I am and concentrate on the things I enjoy and the things I do well.
I think in many ways people try to be inclusive but they tend to do it without really knowing what an individual person needs to be their most successful self. There are still a lot of assumptions about who is deserving of assistance and what that support should look like. Often, in order to be included, there is pressure on us to become more like everyone else instead of becoming more like our true selves. That is, many times inclusion means, “We will give you the tools to look more like one of us” rather than “We will include you by respecting and celebrating who you are.” Personally, I feel that many workplaces are especially difficult for Autistic people and it is not an easy fix because the challenges will be different for each person. Through my personal experiences and networks, I know that it is common for people with Autism to struggle to find or keep a job. Many will burn out from the pressure, as I have in the past.
As we work more towards a society that is truly inclusive, organisations like the I CAN Network are very important. So often, Autistic people need a bit of support to cope in a world that is not designed for our needs. We know we are different and the I CAN Network is a place where we can find others who are like us so we don’t feel so alone anymore. Knowing that there are people out there who believe we have something to offer helps us to believe in ourselves too.
Over the past couple of years, I have slowly built my involvement with the I CAN Network. I started volunteering with a group then moved on to being a mentor and finally a Network Leader. The biggest change in my life has been that I now feel capable of doing paid work. My previous experience with employment was overwhelming and in the first year I had a full-time job, I attempted to take my own life twice. After that, I felt that I would never be able to cope with employment and I did not want to take the risk. I CAN has been great for me because I have been able to accept work gradually and I am not expected to work full time. It has given me the privilege of feeling successful and seeing my work make a difference for others. I love planning the activities and looking for new ideas for the sessions. I CAN has shown me a greater range of what Autism can look like for individuals, too. It has also helped me to be more positive about Autism, because if I am not positive, how can I expect others to be?
To help create a world that is more welcoming for Autistics, it is critical to speak about Autism in a positive way as it boosts people’s confidence and confidence makes a big difference in our capability. When Autistic people feel good about who we are, our strengths grow and our struggles shrink. So many “problems” associated with Autism are not actually problems – it’s just that the rest of the world isn’t willing to adapt their way of doing things or their expectations of how something will be done. As people get to know more Autistics, they are likely to be more open to new ways of working to support everyone’s needs and have more positive interactions with all Autistic people.
A world that embraces Autism will accept different ways of doing things without judgement. I can think of so many changes that would make a difference. Autistic people would be encouraged to communicate in a way that suits them, whether that is writing, drawing or typing instead of speaking. There would be more accessible quiet spaces in offices, schools and shops where people can recharge if they need to. Working conditions would become more flexible, with people having greater control over when and where they work, as long as they get the job done well. As a society, we would be looking for ways to leverage individual strengths and collaborating more often to cover each other’s weaknesses. There would be more opportunities for people to contribute and feel successful, and we would redefine what “success” looks like so that it’s not such a narrow band. I know this world is possible because this is our world at I CAN. I hope others will join us soon.
If you are struggling and have suicidal thoughts, please know that you are not alone and help is available: Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au).