Pia, 31.

My feelings about my Autism have changed considerably over the past 6 months -from feeling dejected to feeling a greater sense of self and in turn, pride. After facing a particularly bad period of bullying, prejudice and discrimination, I reassessed my goals based on my passions and drawing upon my strengths. I am also beginning to recognise that in some ways my Autism can be a gift and one year on from my diagnosis I am still discovering my strengths along my journey of better understanding, accepting and most importantly, loving myself for who I am.
This has allowed me to create a more positive life for myself where I feel I can begin to be my more authentic self whether it be in the area that I work, to my perspective and relationship with the world. However, removing the many masks that I have developed over 30 odd years in an attempt to show my true identity is no easy feat and is often like removing the many layers of a Russian Matryoshka doll. Despite this, I am actively trying to be more clear and assertive when communicating my needs as an openly proud Autistic.
I wish there was a spiel that I could recite to people when explaining what Autism is, but research, education, advocacy and many other facets making up the Autism paradigm is not static and is constantly evolving. Therefore, I simply saying I’m Autistic and then it’s a matter of whether the individual will ask for further detail and tailoring my explanation to the person depending on the situation and individual circumstances. Sometimes the easiest explanation goes along the lines of: ‘my brain functions differently which allows me to see the world differently’. Otherwise, I refer them to an arsenal of literature which can better explain it to them than me being put on the spot. Honestly, I’m still figuring it out. I don’t think you ever stop learning about how Autism manifests itself in one’s day-to-day life. But thus far (which is still early days), Autism is something special should be accepted, valued, harnessed and appreciated by the individual and greater society as a whole. It is a different neurology which contributes to the greater neurological construct of our neurodiverse global society.

My Autism has always allowed me to think quickly ahead of the pack. I can quickly deduce a wider range of variables, hyper analyse all the various causal and consequential pathways and arrive at an accurate conclusion. Despite, my writing and prose not being as strong as my peers, I can normally out-strategize others in a very short space of time. I am also creative which allows me to think outside the square.

I am saying I CAN to everything! I have spent many years holed up and feel like I lost a lot of time and missed opportunities. As I have progressively been coming to terms with my Autism diagnosis, I believe that I can do a lot more than what I gave myself credit for in the past. Granted, there are many situations that I may not like or make me feel uncomfortable, I don’t want life to pass me by and think of all the wonderful experiences I could have had but missed out on.

Like many others on the Autism Spectrum, I was a victim of bullying. Given my forward approach and failure to recognise authority figures, I often found myself being scolded by my teachers and flagged as the problem child. The boys would frequently single me out as they found it fun to throw food at me and eventually watch me ‘snap’ which I now know were meltdowns, with teachers subsequently alienating me further from my peers with detention and even periods of suspension. I took little interest in most subjects but took a particular shining to art history, particularly artworks produced during the Cold War era. My grades also tended to dramatically fluctuate depending upon whether the topic at hand peaked my interest or not. By the time I got to year 11 I started making friends outside of school which distracted my focus from the antics that I was subjected to at school whilst focussing on my work.

Now, I’d like to tell my younger self that life is fluid and while things may be tough at that moment in time, things will change, you will grow and you will find different facets of yourself many times over until one day you find your own tribe, your true sense of self and will be old enough to not care about issues others may take with your Autistic personality, as it is simply their problem. Be your authentic self, but also be tactful and chose your battles which will save you a lot of hurt in the long run. Also, you are intelligent and you will contribute to making this world a better place (no matter how small that mark is). You are worthy, you are loved and don’t be so damn hard on yourself! For other young people, never be afraid to ask questions if you are stuck or unsure of something. From my experience, it is better to check with your teacher to avoid making mistakes which can cost you later down the track. Often students are too scared to approach their teachers, however doing so will actually demonstrate your enthusiasm to them whilst clarifying any queries or concerns. Also, if you are tertiary student and you are struggling with any physical and/or mental health issues, make use of any health or disability services available. When I was going through some personal issues, I was able to obtain a disability certificate which allowed me greater time to submit my assignments and during examination periods which helped relieve stress through flexible study arrangements. Similarly, most University institutions will have some type of student learning centre where you can bring your essay plan or marked assignments into, where a staff member (often a PhD student) will sit down and go through your assignment to help with essay structure, sentence structure, grammar etc. When I first started university, despite implementing feedback provided on my marked assignments, my grades were not improving. I decided to visit the University’s student learning centre where the friendly staff helped taught me how to improve my academic writing. Consequently, my grades improved and I eventually understood what was expected and how to get the grades that I wanted without further assistance.

I also think it is important to set yourself small and realistic goals to ensure that you are producing your work on time and to avoid the stress of leaving things to the last minute (unless you work well this way which is also fine). Having a timeline for what is needed for each assignment (whether it be research, writing the body, drafting [always be sure to draft your assignments no matter how painful this may be] etc) will help you meet your deadlines whilst minimising stress and having a more consistent sense of achievement.

I would really love to see schools start implementing educational programs on disability programs. When children are young they tend to accept their peers irrespective of their ethnicity, gender and differences. However, for most teens on the Autism Spectrum, this changes dramatically during high school and bullying becomes a major issue which can have long term impacts upon an Autistic individual’s mental health and confidence. I would like to see Autistic speakers and disability advocates provide half-day workshops to students and teachers alike to educate neurotypicals about our differences to better promote understanding, acceptance, inclusion and reducing stress of Autistic students. I don’t think this should end at high school, but should also apply to workplaces among other areas (i.e. healthcare professions) as Autism is a lifelong condition and all of society needs to be brought up to speed about Autism awareness and acceptance.
For me, studying has become second nature and it was the workforce and 9-5 grind of office work which was a huge shock to the system. I found office work incredibly mundane and didn’t feel that my knowledge and skills were being utilised to my fullest ability nor valued. I had this idea in my head that once I finished my studies, I would get an amazing job and life would be great. But instead, due to limited opportunities (especially living in a smaller town) I took the best possible job I could which was unrelated to my field of study or interest. This led to me feeling very unfulfilled which offset a range of [mental] health issues to the point where working in that type of role was no longer sustainable. Consequently, I had to reflect about what type of work I was best suited to according to my needs, strengths and skills (research) and what my passion was (all things ASD). I put myself out there and was fortunate to receive a PhD scholarship in the field of medicine and ASD! My life has dramatically changed for the better where I am incredibly happy in my new role, fortunate to experience a much needed change in scenery and loving my new life!

In sum, what I learnt from this experience is: follow your passion! Even if you have to work in a job that you don’t enjoy for a period of time to support yourself whilst continuing to try and break into the field that you are passionate about. This will help you build your resiliency along your journey.
Over the years, I have been able to gradually increase my tolerance for change and in a healthier way. I think being exposed to a range of situations involuntarily (as a result of traveling overseas for 3.5 years to undergo an offshore partner visa), has made me more resilient to adjusting to change. I think it depends more on the individual situation and the extent of your aversion to something. For instance, I have driven across 3 states to relocate for my studies, found an apartment, organised inter-state storage, removalist and packers all in the first week of starting my PhD. I was very stressed and overloaded, but somehow I managed it. Yet I am ruminating all day over the thought of having to share a room with 2 other people for an upcoming camp a few weeks from now which is making me extremely anxious and uncomfortable. Having my partner to vent to is immensely helpful (but probably to his detriment) as well as exercising regularly and ensuring that I have some downtime each evening by watching some TV or movies. I enjoy the occasional drink too, but have learned over the many years that depending on such is not sustainable, helpful nor healthy.

The I CAN Network creates a world that embraces Pia’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.

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