I am a 24-year-old Chinese Australian, diagnosed with autism at three years old, and have been non-speaking after 14 months of age. After intensive extension of my limited skills and picking up a means of communication via partner-assisted typing at nine years old, I became opened to the possibility of connecting with people and with the life I would like to live. I have kept working on understanding how my challenges can be transformed into capacity and strengths.
This journey has been supported and scaffolded by my social network, especially my mum who has been with me every step of the way. Some of the highlights of this journey include graduating from mainstream schools to study at university, giving a TED Talk when I was 18, presumably the first by a non-speaking person with severe autism, and presenting at forums and conferences, both local and international. I have the greatest respect and time for organisations that advocate for autism, including the I CAN Network, Communication Rights Australia and Children and Young People with Disability. I am excited to be part of the self-advocacy movement to drive autism to a new level of relevance and inclusion.
Over the years, I have learned to see Autism not as a disorder but another way of being in the world. Although the effects of autism on me can be debilitating, seeing the world with different eyes and in different ways more than compensate. In acknowledging that I function differently in mind and body, I am able to find the confidence and impetus to use my strengths towards connecting and engagement with the world. For instance, I am a visual thinker and everything comes into my head as pictures. It was not until four years of age that I discovered that people use speech to communicate. With this realisation, I have worked hard to learn to use language and to communicate by typing with support. Another example, because of hypersensitivity, I am quite resourceful in finding ways to manage constant sensory discomfort and overload. On the other hand, I can see things that people may miss because of my heightened sensory and other processing ability. I am good with details and working at putting things together in a big picture. From this unique perspective, I find that I can make contributions in my own ways. I have just completed a book on my journey with autism, entitled Back from the Brink, and sharing my story is one of the ways that I feel can increase the level of understanding and acceptance of Autism.
I would like to tell my younger self, don’t be too worried about what people think. Although it can be tough when people walk away without acknowledging you, it is important to be in touch with who you are. Don’t be ashamed of yourself, the parts of you that you wish never existed may give you some of the greatest moments of joy and satisfaction. For instance, after coming to terms with my differences, writing up the story of my life and sharing this with others is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Don’t hide yourself away, but keep working at finding your tribe and your niche.