Elise, 19.

I’m 19 years old and I’ve just finished Year 12 last year. I’m Indigenous from the Wiradjuri tribe, around the Wodonga area in Albury. I’m also Maltese and Dutch, and all of these identities are important to me. My passion is sport. I play soccer and football, mostly. I made the state team for football, and then trained in the academy and made the national team, where I have played games in New Zealand. I’m now also studying to be a personal trainer.

If you had asked me before I got involved at the I CAN Network, Autism was very much the reason (in my perspective) of why I was bullied and why I didn’t have friends. I couldn’t even say the word Aspergers or Autism. Instead, I had a codeword that I used, so if anyone needed to refer to my Autism they had to say ‘tree’, because I couldn’t stand the word. It was pretty much the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I was really nervous to go on my first I CAN camp. All I had been told was that people on the Spectrum were boys who were into video games and who weren’t sporty. But at the same time, I really wanted to go because I’d always thought I was an alien in society. I wanted to go to find my ‘people’, in a sense, but I was terrified of going and realising that what society said about Autism was true, and that I wasn’t like anyone at I CAN either: that I was just weird by nature. But going to my first I CAN camp was the best thing that ever happened to me. We all got along, we all had a similar past, and the stereotypes just weren’t there. There were people that played sport, boys and girls, people who loved makeup, and others that had an interest in fashion. Everyone was so unique, but we had similar things that we just clicked over. I literally came back from I CAN camp and told my friends, “Everything I’ve told you about Autism is wrong. Ignore it. The facts about me may be correct, but the outlook, the perspective, it’s all wrong.” So if you ask me what Autism means to me now, it’s definitely a strength. Because of the I CAN Network, all I’m experiencing is the best stuff of Autism.

I literally came back from I CAN camp and told my friends, “Everything I’ve told you about Autism is wrong. Ignore it. The facts about me may be correct, but the outlook, the perspective, it’s all wrong.

Like any human, I have my bad days. I used to label those days as my ‘Autism days’, and the good days as my ‘Elise days’. Having learnt more about myself, and with the help of the I CAN Network, I have learnt to no longer see my Autism as bad. Those ‘Elise days’ are when the strengths of my Autism come out. My talents, persistence and unique outlook. The days that are full of meltdowns, or when I am so exhausted that I can’t get out of bed, are just the days that come with pushing myself to my full potential. Society doesn’t see those days – naturally, I present myself at my best. When I was younger and struggling, I was seen as naughty. Now that I have learnt to hide the struggle, I am seen as weird. When people find out that I have Autism they say ‘but you don’t look Autistic’. Autism is indeed a Spectrum. For me, the Spectrum is dependent on the day. Some days I require more support than others. But for society, my Autism is a Spectrum of naughty to weird, to weird to normal. This needs to change.

I struggled a lot in school. I moved schools 7 different times growing up. I got bullied a lot, not just from my peers, but from my teachers too. Whenever I tried to talk to anyone about it, my diagnosis was used as something to hide behind: “She’s got Autism, she doesn’t understand. She just perceives things wrong.” Schools like to think that they are inclusive because they have kids with special needs in their classrooms. But throughout my schooling, if I was ever having a bit of trouble, I was taken to a different room. I often got modified work. We’re there but they don’t want us to be heard from, they don’t really like us to say what we need. Everything needs to be individualised and teachers need to not make assumptions. Just because we’re in the classroom doesn’t mean we’re included.

If I could tell my 10-year-old self one thing it would be: What society thinks you’re capable of isn’t the end of what you’re capable of. I probably would’ve just liked to tell myself what I have become, and to create a list of goals that I want to achieve. It’s okay to change them, but never sell myself short, and never think of my difficulties as limitations, because they’re not.

The I CAN Network is important. I was stuck in a negative hole that my school created and that I jumped into by not believing in myself. If it weren’t for the I CAN Network, I would still be in there, and all of the students I’m now mentoring wouldn’t be able to get out of their similar holes either. The I CAN Network is contagiously positive: once you have an I CAN attitude, you really can do anything.

If anyone reading this could do one thing to make sure our society is more inclusive for people on the Autism Spectrum, it would be to get to know someone on the Spectrum. If you see them getting bullied, stick up for them. Ask them what they want to do, and help them to achieve it. That goes for anyone, not just people on the Spectrum. Get to know whoever you can, and help them to achieve. Give people a chance, don’t judge, don’t assume, don’t limit, don’t hold their wings back. Let them know that they can do anything. Just be a friend.

A world that embraces Autism is one where all people are employed, all people have friends, and all people learn in school. It is a world where society sees individuals for their strengths, and where a diagnosis of Autism is not seen as a burden, but rather an opportunity. Embracing Autism involves recognising the good, but also being open to assisting in the struggles. Only then can people with Autism flourish.

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Like many of our mentors, Elise started with I CAN as a mentee. As a mentor, Elise ensures that schools are an inclusive place for people on the Autism Spectrum. We need your support to continue empowering mentors, such as Elise, with a paid position.

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