Reflection on a conference: advocacy, community, friendship and owning my ‘me’

It is currently 10:21 pm – probably time for Jeanettes to be in bed. But I just got home after four days in Brisbane for the Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC) and I really feel the need to make some observations.

Some background:

I speak at quite a few conferences these days but I was unable to between 2010 and 2012 due to significant illness. Since then, things have taken off somewhat, Autism and mental health career-wise. It is still taking me a while to recognise that, as a friend put it the other day, I am something of an Autism world ‘rock star’ at the moment. I suppose people might think I like this, given my extroverted public persona, and yes, some of it is great. I never get lonely because all my lovely friends communicate with me and I get to share my good message about advocacy and empowerment with an increasingly larger audience. But in terms of the profile itself, I am very uncomfortable about it and don’t like it much at all. So I (correctly) expected the APAC conference to be a place where my increasing profile was evident. My other concern was that my workaholic ways have left me quite unwell with anxiety and related issues in the last few weeks. At one point I thought I would not even be able to come to APAC. That background of anxiety about my capacity to even be there plus worries about my profile meant that I was more apprehensive than excited about APAC.

The conference:

APAC is the biggest Autism event I have ever attended. There were around 1200 delegates, which is a lot of people. We had a welcome event the night before the conference and I caught up with so many friends, simply because so many of my autism world friends were there. I found a virtual art exhibion and was very excited to see six images of my work complete with bio (I took some pictures on my phone and heard someone say ‘Jeanette is taking pictures of her artworks!’ and then I felt self-conscious so I only have four images).

The first day of the conference there was an opening session and one of the mentors in the conference mentoring programme – which I was also part of – gave a five minute speech. I was struck by the Autistic speaker’s passion in comparison with the cool professionalism of the other speakers – mostly CEOs. Now I am friends with a couple of those CEOs so I’m not criticising them at all but it was very interesting to observe. I know a lot of the academics and professionals who were speaking and I can attest that they do care deeply about Autistic people’s empowerment and success. However, speakers who have a lived experience often seemed to come from a very deep place of passion about their subject. I enjoyed listening to both kinds of talks but I was much more moved by the ‘lived experience’ presentations.

One funny thing about the conference was that it was so big that I am sure there were people there I know well who I didn’t catch up with. A lot of people came to talk to me after both of my talks. I spoke about resilience once and employment. The audience was larger in the employment one as it was a symposium and there were less sessions clashing with it. I stood up on stage and told jokes and waved my arms about and maybe imparted a bit of knowledge but people found it really helpful  – well, they said they did! I also sold seven books so came home with a wallet brimming with cash.

Easily my favourite aspect was meeting amazing people and spending time with some of my closest of close friends. As a mentor in the APAC mentoring project I got to meet some young and not so young people and learn about their perspectives. I wouldn’t even be able to start to mention all of them here but it was just amazing. Being with so many friends and colleagues on the spectrum was as if I spent a lot of my time wearing a big itchy jumper. I long to take it off but everyone tells me my arms are ugly and disordered and I must wear the jumper. So I wear it – to the point that I almost get used to the itch, but when I attend an event like APAC (or on a smaller scale my women’s group), we all take off our itchy jumpers and delight in our arms which we know are beautiful, even if other people say they aren’t. I know that’s a bit of an iffy metaphor but I think you get the idea. At Autism events I can be me, I spent a lot of the sessions playing with fidget toys. Now I am an out loud and proud Autistic woman and I might pick up a fidget toy on a bus but I would never do that at work. My managers and colleagues aren’t at all prejudiced but I worry that they would be concerned or not understand (although I may be judging them unfairly because they are the best team in any workplace in the world – not that I’m biased). But whatever the reaction might be, my perception is the relevant bit and I feel a lot more at ease to be as wonderfully Autistic as I possibly can at events like APAC.

So I havd an amazing time. I am now unbelievably tired and need to sleep for some time. I am picking up the Kitty tomorrow. I have a new playmate for him – a very lifelike weighted, toy kitty I bought from the weighted blanket stallholders. Oh, and before I go to bed, one of the stallholders was the most amazing small business, and purveyor of Autism books, games and wonderful fidget toys, Resources at Hand. They sell books by a bunch of great authors (er, and me). Here’s their website:

Goodnight all…


Me speaking this afternoon…

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