Austin, 23.

I am 23 years old and was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at the age of 18. My brother, Lincoln, is also on the Autism Spectrum. I am currently a PhD candidate and spent 10 months of last year in South Korea as a New Colombo Scholar. I am also the Deputy Chairperson for the I CAN Network and have been involved with the organisation since early 2015.

I have been really fortunate in my life in that I have always had a strong personal network. In my life it typically was not other people who told me I could not do something, rather it was my own voice that told me that ‘I can’t’. This affected a broad slice of my life, from seemingly minor social events, all the way to life changing decisions, such as moving to South Korea.

A key challenge from my Aspergers is serious but targeted social anxiety. Just in the last two years I have spoken to a crowd of thousands, presented to politicians and participated in high level expert meetings. Yet last month I unceremoniously fled an academic seminar because I was unexpectedly invited to a social networking afternoon tea. I have always struggled in social situations, although challenging myself over the last year has helped me.

Thus in December 2015, when I was able to secure a position on the prestigious New Colombo Plan Scholarship, the prospect of going to live and study in South Korea for ten months set off that internal voice that told me ‘you can’t’. The fact that I would have to leave in less than two months certainly did not help. Those two months were incredibly hectic in my household and I owe a great deal to my personal network for helping me to manage my anxiety as I navigated travel, visa and living arrangements with two universities, two governments and a particularly stubborn Korean medical clinic.

My time in the country was characterised by great highs and difficult challenges. When I landed in Korea I knew a grand total of two people, both of whom I had met for less than a few hours at the award ceremony in December. My 한국어 (Korean language) skills were limited to 안녕하세요 (hello) and 커피 (Coffee).

I think the best example I can give of this dichotomy of highs and challenges was the laboratory I was studying through, which is one of the leading technical and science universities in Asia. The other students in the laboratory were engineers and computer scientists. Most of them were not confident English speakers and preferred to speak in Korean. To them I must have appeared a true oddity, a social scientist who had intruded into their highly demanding field. To give you some idea of the workload, the lab was active virtually around the clock seven days a week, with most students starting at 9am and only leaving for their dorms after 3am.

In this environment my anxiety flourished and I struggled to find the courage to initiate a conversation. I have immense gratitude toward two people for helping me adjust to life in the laboratory. The first was Professor Shim, who took the time to introduce the anxious foreigner to his students and colleagues as well as to regularly check on me in the lab. The second was Jamie Lee, who was my closest friend in the lab and would often translate when I was invited to lab social events.

Over the next ten months I would be challenged and repeatedly forced out of my comfort zone, there were many times when I told myself that my only option was to give up and come home early. The most severe of these incidences was in July 2016, my foreign friends from the previous semester had left Korea and I began to feel extremely lonely. I was also unable to continue living on campus due to an administrative error so had to find myself an off-campus apartment in a city where none of the real-estate agents offered an English language service. Thanks to a number of supporters, including my parents, I forced myself to stay in Korea until my program ended in September. Upon returning to Melbourne to start my PhD, I could not have been more satisfied with my decision to stay in Korea and complete my internship.

Overcoming the negative expectations I place on myself due to anxiety is an ongoing issue for me. The challenges and self-doubt I faced while I was in Korea caused me to question my ability to achieve my ambitions. It certainly did not help that when I left I was going through some major changes in my personal life. However, I learnt a lot about myself while I was overseas, it really was the experience itself that has taught me some key lessons about myself and how to trust my network to overcome my anxieties.

Firstly, I learnt the value of trusting the experiences of your friends and your family, even when this means you have to step outside of your comfort zone. Some of the greatest experiences I had overseas were the result of taking the advice of the friends I met on exchange and doing things that I thought were ridiculous or simply beyond my ability, from regular Karaoke nights to literally climbing mountains.

Living in Korea also exposed me to a variety of different cultures and even taught me a new language to express myself in. I did not realise the extent to which living immersed in another culture had made me more outwardly confident until a friend pointed it out to me last month. This experience has also served as a touchstone for me in the present, when I feel anxious I think back to my experiences in Korea.

I cannot say that I have completely conquered that anxious voice inside me that tells me ‘I can’t’, as proven by my sudden exit from the academic seminar earlier this year. But I have become much better at dealing with my social anxiety. The overall message I learned from my time in Korea is that that my anxiety can be overcome through determination, the support of my personal network and – and I cannot stress this enough – by continuing to challenge myself by doing things that make that voice go nuts.

There is no other organisation that is more suited to enabling young people in our community to overcome negative assumptions than the I CAN Network. By placing the lived experience of mentors who are on the Autism Spectrum at the centre of everything we do, the I CAN Network has the legitimacy to connect with participants and make them feel safely understood.

I cannot overstate the impact for young people on the Spectrum of meeting accomplished older mentors who are just like them. I CAN Mentors have walked the Spectrum journey and are proud of the contribution their Autism makes to their community. At the end of the day, I CAN Network is a group of passionate individuals with a lived experience of the Spectrum that facilitates a forum for our community to finally take the centre stage in their own success.

To me you cannot separate Autism from the individual and that is why I enjoy my job at the I CAN Network. I get to meet new young people on the Spectrum at every mentoring session, every staff meeting and every camp that I attend. Each new person adds something to my understanding of this ever-changing community of undiscovered talent.

Austin is creating a better world for people on the Autism Spectrum. We need your help. Join us by donating or giving monthly. Together, we can create employment opportunities for people on the Autism Spectrum, and can support schools and workplaces to celebrate their individual strengths.

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