Elise, 20.

I always knew I was different but I didn’t know why. I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when I was 11. Autism is something that when I was younger, I felt as though I couldn’t escape. The continuous desire to be accepted and ‘fit in’ in a world I have felt I never belonged in, troubled me. It was exhausting and was often met with rejection. I blamed my Autism for the why I was marginalised, bullied, alienated and disenfranchised in schools. When I look back it makes sense that I thought of Autism in such a negative way because everyone else, especially my schools, seemed to associate the Spectrum with weakness. They saw Autism as a disadvantage and a problem.

Going to school as a student with Autism has been like living with a disability in an ableist society. My Autism was perceived as a burden. I found it hard when the school I attended underestimated my capabilities and negatively stereotyped my diagnosis. In the first week of Year 10, my mum received an email from the school regarding me potentially completing a Certificate 3 in Outdoor Recreation: “Elise is already doing a Year 11 subject BUT even if she wasn’t doing this, there is NO way she could accommodate this load.” The only reasoning they had was that I had ‘special needs’. I was sick of being underestimated just because I have Autism. All I could do was try to make things better for me, and teach the school about the capabilities of the Spectrum. I aimed to do what the school told me I couldn’t and that’s exactly what I did. Against their beliefs, I completed a First Aid course, and despite being told I was incapable, I smashed out the Certificate 3 in Outdoor Recreation getting the highest score in my year. Meanwhile, I got the top grades in my two Year 11 VCE subjects, despite being in Year 10. Since then I have completed many certificates and am now a certified Personal Trainer.

All I have ever longed for is to be accepted and have friends. Having Autism means the social interaction side of life does not come naturally to me. Growing up, I felt that the world was a game of Chinese whispers and I was their topic of joke. Without being taught the body language, facial expressions and use of intimation and tone, it was really hard for me to understand what people were saying or who they were talking to. I felt intimidated and I found it hard to connect with people. Reaching out drains my energy and all too often resulted in bullying and rejection. When I was bullied the school hid behind my diagnosis and said that I mustn’t have understood what the person was doing, because my ‘Disorder’ prevented me from understanding people. I refuse to accept that – because being pinned up against a wall or circled whilst having balls thrown at me can’t ever be mistaken as a friendly encounter. I had always had a strong support system at home but after getting bullied day after day at school for over eight years, you naturally start to believe the put downs. After a while, the bullies voices became my own thoughts about myself. My senior years of school were my lowest years of my life. Battling severe depression and anxiety, I really couldn’t see a way out. Mental ill health is far too common among young adults on the Spectrum. This is unacceptable. Schools should not be able to ignore our basic human rights. It is their obligation to provide an education that is in a safe environment and discrimination free.

I first got involved with the I CAN Network 3 years ago as a participant on the very first I CAN teens camp. I learnt that letting people into your feelings and not being ashamed to say what you need to succeed, is the key. After the camp, I worked up the courage to free myself from the poisonous environment and I changed schools. This was a massive ‘I Can’ moment because my Autism means that dealing with change is a massive struggle. From there, I made a choice to stop dwelling on the hurt from my past or the problems of my present, and I instead started focusing on what I could do right, saying yes to opportunities that came my way, making the right choices and setting myself realistic goals that I wanted to achieve. I changed the people I was surrounding myself with. I started hanging around people who were more positive and who enabled me. With that, my life became more positive. Slowly I started getting wins to my name – I got my driver’s licence and finished Year 12. Before I knew it, it was so much easier and almost natural for me to succeed and it was because my mindset had changed.

I am using my Autism to succeed academically, socially, and also on the sporting field. I am working hard to stay optimistic and am currently winning against my battle with anxiety and depression. I am on top of my demons and have found purpose in my past. I now work for the I CAN Network as a Network Leader and mentor in six schools across Victoria. At the I CAN Network, we accept everyone for who they are, we embrace all differences and create opportunities. I am now the mentor that I needed when I was in school. The I CAN Network exists to give people on the Autism Spectrum the foundation to succeed – self belief. We do this by giving people time and making them feel safe to push themselves. Autism should be seen as a strength and with the right support and a little understanding, then we can see young people flourish and reach their amazing potential. I have gone from needing a code word to talk about Autism to being an Autism Ambassador. What made me different is now giving me opportunities.

Autism is not something I suffer from. I suffer from the repercussions of other people’s lack of understanding of Autism and their ignorance. I aspire to break down the barriers between schools and students on the Spectrum. I’m all about embracing the strengths and difficulties of the Spectrum. Autism is my purpose, it doesn’t make up who I am, it is a part of me that I can decide to be important or not. Autism sets me apart from others and that is my strength. I used to feel like Autism was my weakness because there were times when everything felt so hard. But once I learnt to live with it, and make peace with it, it has given me so many opportunities. Everyone has something, I have Autism, it isn’t a disability but a different ability.

Elise is breaking down barriers. You can too. 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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