The other day I checked my Facebook messages and there was one from one of my favourite organisations – TEDx Canberra. The message was asking me to participate in one of their events. I was quite excited by this. I put the event on Facebook and emailed some people. I reflected on how TEDx Canberra gave me one of the best opportunities of my life in 2013 by inviting me to speak at their Then. Now. Next. conference. This got me to thinking about opportunity.
In my own life I have had a number of amazing and life-changing opportunities, from a publisher’s contract for my first serious piece of writing – my autobiography – to the opportunity to join the ranks of the Australian Public Service a year later. The past 16 years of my life has involved many such opportunities, most of which I have willingly taken up and appreciated. A lot of what I try and do these days with my advocacy work is to help enable others on the Autism spectrum to be offered and subsequently take up opportunities of their own. It concerns me the lack of opportunities Autistic young people are offered.
As Autistics, we get a bunch of negative messaging from all over the place – this can come from society generally, media, schools and higher education providers, employers, family members, partners and even our own selves. There is so often a presumption of incompetence in everything. Autism is not seen by most people as coming with gifts. In fact on the rare occasion that Autistic gifts are considered the focus is often on what are known as ‘splinter skills’ or ‘savant skills’. With these, the emphasis is often placed on the high ability in a specific area in the context of the Autistic person apparently being unable to do all the practical living skills that others have. So these splinter skills are actually considered as aa sort of disability in themselves.
Autistic young people are often seen in terms of what they can’t do, what they struggle with. Opportunity is not something they are offered a lot of the time. The highly conventionally successful Autistic person is seen as an anomaly or exception. I recall a woman saying incredulously to my non-Autistic companion at a high powered dinner last year, ‘she’s so articulate’ after talking to me. I honestly don’t know what the woman was expecting but I was more than a little affronted. The concept that I – an Autistic woman – would of necessity would be less articulate than a non-Autistic professional was not just rude, it was indicative of the sorts of attitudes out there in the world. Why would anyone want to give us opportunities if they think us incapable of capitalising on them?
I propose a different approach and I hope I can use the opportunities I have been given in my career and publishing and I hope that I might use some of those beautiful opportunities I have been gifted with to spread this message. I am friendly with an organisation based in Melbourne called the I CAN Network which is led mostly by Autistics and works to mentor and build confidence for children and young people on the spectrum. The premise for the organisation is ‘a rethink on AWEtism’ and to promote the attitude of ‘I CAN….’ in young people on the spectrum to counter all the negative messaging and deficits thinking. I support the work of I CAN because I think it is highly valuable and working in the right direction. This kind of work needs to go further though – from Australia to the world. From children and teens and young people to those people like me, the adults who are relatively recently diagnosed and have faced negative messaging, invalidation and discrimination their whole life.
I want the assumption of incompetence when folks hear the world ‘Autistic’ to change to an assumption of competence. Because we have so many strengths – collectively and individually. Some of these might include:
- In a work context, amazing soft skills such as enthusiasm, attention to detail, honestly, loyalty, respect for diversity, a good work ethic and dedication.
- Creativity and innovative thinking
- Empathy, thoughtfulness and kindness
- Determination and dedication
- Passion about a topic
- Commitment to ethics
- Understanding of difference and diversity and often a lack of prejudice about those who are seen as ‘Other’
- Not always, but often Autistic people are great with technology
- Logical and rational approach to problems and challenges
- Ability to support others with similar experiences when they need it
- Affinity with animals and nature
- Great long term memory and an ability to quickly access information
- Provide the world with a different perspective
- Loyal and honest friend or colleague
This is far from an exhaustive list and of course does not apply to all Autistic people, but could you imagine if when the word ‘Autism’ is said that most people draw from this list rather than all the deficits and negativity? Opportunities in things like education, employment, civic life, relationships and many other areas would probably be more likely than they are now. .
The reason I care about this is that it is the opportunities we are given in life that can determine our level of fulfilment and engagement with life and there are too many Autistic people who are unfulfilled and isolated. Issues like social isolation, unemployment and underemployment, a lack of educational attainment, feeling alienated from the rest of the world and / or just feeling really down on themselves are rife. In my anecdotal experience i would seem that more of us fit into this category than that of fulfilled and satisfied Autistics.
I’m not exactly sure how to make this shift happen but I imagine it will require a cultural change. Cultural changes can be very difficult to achieve on a large scale by an individual or an organisation. For this reason I am so happy at the large and increasing number of Autistic self-advocates driving changes. I have consciously been a self-advocate since 2005 and it is in recent years I have seen the explosion of people working for change. And we do seem to be driving change in some Autism organisations which is great and definitely needs to continue. This shift was epitomised in an article I read from SBS about neurodiversity. The article quoted about fifteen advocates with differing perspectives. Yes, I knew all but two them but even that is changing. That a mainstream media outlet is discussing neurodivevosty seems quite promising to me. Yes, there is a way to go but I am hopeful we are heading in the right direction,
Me speaking at TEDx made into a meme….