We are the Bolger family! Clay, 43; Rhona, 43; Alyssa, 13 and Lachlan, 12. We are all on the spectrum and we enjoy spending time together, with a common fondness for board games and road trips. Another important member of our family is our dog Zappa, a Staffordshire terrier cross who provides great emotional support for us all. We approach every challenge as a team and love the empowerment that comes with overcoming obstacles. I am a professional musician playing in pubs and live venues across Perth, while Rhona is a passionate literacy specialist teacher. Alyssa is happily attending high school while Lachlan is homeschooled by Rhona and myself.
Autism is a vital part of our being. It shapes every experience that we have, and it influences how we see the world and navigate our way through it. It also plays a big part in how we function as a family unit. Our autistic perspectives on life have created a very special bond, which is why we call ourselves Team Bolgies. If it wasn’t for Alyssa and Lachlan’s childhood autism diagnoses, we might not have identified our own neurodiversity. Rhona was diagnosed at the age of 41 in August 2017 and I received mine in December that year, aged 41 as well.
After Alyssa became the first autistic Channel 7 Perth Little Telethon Star, we started travelling to schools to talk about life on the autism spectrum. We formed Alyssa’s Autism Acceptance Project (or, The AAA Project) around the breakfast table one morning, with the hope of empowering autistic kids to embrace their neurology and educating others about autism. We believe that when you know better, you do better, and we want to help provide our community with knowledge of the neurodiverse world.
We’d love to prevent other families from experiencing the ‘Tut-Tut Brigade’. That’s the term we coined for those members of society who assumed our kids were just being naughty when they were struggling to deal with sensory overload. Along with this, we’re doing our best to educate the community about the individuality of the spectrum. Our diagnoses are routinely questioned not only by neurotypicals, but even by some other autistics. According to some, our ability to maintain employment, build a successful marriage and function as a happy family unit means that we can’t be “autistic enough” to have a valid autistic perspective. We’re continually working on ways to overcome these challenges.
We are constantly striving to shape a more inclusive society, particularly in education. While some schools are making strong efforts to provide inclusive environments, there are plenty that need to understand that effective inclusion is far more than just proximity. There are many passionate educators out there trying to make their classrooms more inclusive for students of all abilities, but they need to be supported by their school administration and by the Education Department in their state or territory. The more that our education system and workplaces listen to autistic voices, the further we can proceed towards effective inclusion. We need more people to stop talking about us and start talking to us.
As a society, we need to stop seeing an autism diagnosis as a bad thing and start embracing the power of difference. We are all very grateful for our autistic brains, and we don’t believe that should warrant any negativity from society. Some of the biggest technological advances in our world have been made because of the autistic thought process. We’re focused problem solvers. The world wouldn’t be where it is today without us.
Receiving a diagnosis and having the opportunity to understand our neurodiversity has been one of most empowering things to happen to each of us. Organisations like the I CAN Network bring people of the same neurology together. The opportunity to find other people who experience the world similarly to you – your tribe – is a gift, and that’s what the I CAN Network provides for the people it works with. We would love to see the I CAN Network launched in Western Australia someday soon. It’s exciting to know that there are increasing ways that autistic young people across Australia can be a part of I CAN through online mentoring.
We met Chris Varney for the first time in 2015 after Alyssa gave her first ever public address in front of nearly 300 people at an autism symposium. In her speech she expressed that she was proud to be autistic, and Chris echoed that sentiment during his presentation on the I CAN Network. Alyssa turned to Rhona and said, “He’s like me!” We were stirred by the idea of autistic people mentoring others in the autism community. A common goal for I CAN and The AAA Project is the empowerment of autistics and to cement the belief that they can achieve anything.
With this in mind, both of our kids have started their own business. Alyssa makes personalised lanyards and keyrings under the name of Lyssie’s Lanyards, and Lachlan has just started Lochie’s Walkies, which is a dog walking service. He spent the majority of last year running Nummy Nibbles, baking treats for pets, but it become too difficult to maintain. Lachlan particularly enjoyed meeting his animal customers and gave a portion of his profits to animal rescue shelters, which resulted in him being named a junior ambassador for the RSCPA.
Rhona and I have been amazed by the support both kids received from our family and friends in these ventures, and they even attracted new customers via their online storefronts. We will continue to encourage them to achieve their goals and help show society that autism is not a hindrance to being happy and successful.