I was 37 when I was diagnosed with Autism and like a lot of other late diagnosed women I felt relieved about the diagnosis and finally having definitive answers to support my needs.
I have come to realise first-hand that those of us on the Autism Spectrum are not well understood by the community including social support services such as medical care. As my understanding of my Autism deepened so did my understanding of the marginalisation of people with a disability where there is still a strong focus on false perceptions and lack of ability rather than the unique skills and characteristics of individuals. I did not realise how much misinformation there was within the media and even through some Autism support organisations that liken Autism with mental health disorders, diseases and frustratingly as a condition that shows individuals as “missing a piece of the puzzle”, suggesting they are not whole already. I have come to see why young, vulnerable teens on the Autism Spectrum might feel deeply embarrassed about their diagnosis and not identify with it whilst there is such a negative stigma attached to being on the Autism Spectrum. This is what I hope to change by sharing my story and continuing to work with young people on the Autism Spectrum.
I have rarely shared my Autism diagnosis outside my family and close friends because the response by those who do not know me well is typically – “You can’t have Autism, you have a job, you talk normally, you look normal, you don’t have any weird behaviours”. It is always quite offensive and off putting when people say this and it has taken me a few years to feel confident enough to start to challenge those false beliefs and assumptions by some in the community. I was inspired to do this through working with young people on the Spectrum who, in spite of their tender age and vulnerability to bullying by their peers, are proud of their diagnosis and focus on their unique strengths. Over the past few years I have been fortunate enough to develop some close and authentic friendships for the first time in my life, people who know me and who understand Autism well which has really been invaluable.
For me Autism means that I was born with neurodiversity which meant the way I received information about the world through my senses is somewhat different to the majority of people. I created ways to either avoid or seek out certain sensory experiences and this had an impact on my social and communication abilities. It means my day to day experiences and how I see the world are different to most people and I can safely say that now I understand it, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I have been able to understand my children (both on the Autism Spectrum) a lot better and the children I teach at school within the Special Education Program which has led to a strong connection with students which ultimately led to some fantastic learning developments that was very rewarding for me to be a part of. I am also using my sensory preferences to facilitate things I have found difficult in the past such as organisation. I have a strong sense of social justice and I have been able to passionately advocate for change both at the individual and organisational levels.
When you are born in the 70’s you grow up with a very defined script of what you should aspire to as a woman. The Disney Princess that was rescued by the Prince EVERY time really set all young girls my age up for an underwhelming aspiration of seeking fulfillment outside our own capabilities. As a young girl on the Spectrum I masked my Autism extremely well by mimicking these images in the movies but with the undercurrent that I did not authentically relate to them at all, particularly that every relationship young women had in the movies had to be a romantic relationship. Now I love characters that are revered for their own strengths and abilities such as Maggie Fitzgerald from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Million Dollar Baby’.
I am currently the Complex Case Manager within the Special Education Program at Marsden State High School. Like a lot of work places the progression of inclusive practices are underway through the larger organisational initiatives and context. A more personal support and one of the most important aspect of an inclusive workplace is however the direct support and understanding of management. I have been very fortunate at Marsden to work with a Principal who is supportive of inclusive practice and has created a predictable and safe learning environment for me to develop my leadership skills.
On the outside, I have not had difficulty finding a job as I have been able to camouflage quite well when seeking employment and have achieved high academic results. The difficulty over the years in less inclusive environments has certainly been in the maintaining of the position when dealing with the unique challenges of being on the Autism Spectrum. This can include dealing with unpredictability in an environment or amongst personnel, particularly with those who display extreme emotional reactions at work. Dealing with heavy eye contact without enough down time to process can lead to increased anxiety within the day and many women on the Autism Spectrum often leave their jobs abruptly when they cannot cope anymore but also cannot discuss the magnitude of how painful these issues are physically with their employer. When people on the Autism Spectrum find a supportive work environment to their sensory and social needs they are highly loyal and productive employees. They will go above and beyond in most areas and will follow instructions from management very thoroughly, mostly because they will have a high amount of respect for the support that they have been given.
I am saying I CAN to finding ways that perhaps have not been found before for women on the Spectrum to hold important roles in the community and leadership positions whilst managing their sensory needs. I want to challenge the community assumptions of Autism, particularly regarding women and hopefully make the way easier for the young women who may follow in my footsteps in the future.
The I CAN Network creates a world that embraces Danielle’s strengths. We need your support to continue creating a society that empowers young people on the Autism Spectrum. Join us by donating to our next venture: holding one of our acclaimed camps in Queensland.
Go to https://www.gofundme.com/ican-camp-qld to donate – any support is very much appreciated.
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