In 2009 I went to a conference on women and girls on the autism spectrum as a speaker. On the second day, the only people in the room were women and girls on the spectrum. For the first time in my life I genuinely understood on a fundamental level that I am an autistic woman. I also saw how amazing the other women were and realised that it was OK to be autistic. I had found my culture. I felt like I had come home. I was 35 years old.
Back in 2016 and I just spent over two hours at trampolining centre Flip Out with seventeen ‘yellow ladybugs’.Yellow Ladybugs is an organisation which provides social activities for girls on the autism spectrum. It was founded in Melbourne by Katie Koullas – a mum of autistic girls and a legend at using her skills in public relations for the purposes of autism advocacy and generally a very cool human being. After the diagnosis of one of her daughters, Katie noticed there were few opportunities for autistic girls to meet in a safe space and have fun together. Yellow Ladybugs is also an advocacy organisation, putting in submissions to Government and the UN to promote the rights of autistic women and girls. The organisation is one of my absolute favourite things in the world.
Today’s event was the first Yellow Ladybugs event in Canberra. It was organised by a number of people – Alison, Sharon, Melanie, Karen (and sorry if I missed anyone off here – I’m not so good at remembering people and it was a pretty stimulating morning!). I went along as an ambassador.
I got a lift with Alison and we had a really lovely conversation between my home and the venue. Alison parked the car and I went in, clutching the attendance list and some very wonderful social stories written specifically for the event. There were a couple of women with their daughters, some of whom were wearing the distinctive and very beautiful yellow t-shirt with a graphic of little ladybugs in the shape of a heart. One woman came up and introduced herself. ‘I’m new’ she said. We found a reserved table for our group and things got started.
It was quite loud, with music and the bouncing sounds from the trampolines mixed with the noises of children having fun. All pleasant noises but potentially overloading for autistic kids (and Jeanettes!). The girls seemed to be managing well with the noise so I relaxed a bit. I didn’t want any of the girls to have a negative experience.
Someone came and asked me to do a quick introductory speech – I hadn’t been asked before then so was a little concerned. A worried looking woman asked me what I was going to say. I instantly knew what the issue was. It turns out she had not had the Autism ‘talk’ her daughter with and the girl didn’t know about her diagnosis. The mum didn’t really want her finding out from me talking about autism t this event! I reassured her that we call the girls ‘yellow ladybugs’ and that is all we say. In fact speaking to a room full of young girls basically should involve the elements of ‘Hi girls. Nice to meet you. Have fun bouncing. I’m a yellow ladybug too – look at my t-shirt. I have kitty earrings. Have fun girls’. Thankfully that is just what my speech consisted of!
After my brief speech the girls went and bounced on the trampolines for a bit. I wasn’t sure if adults were allowed to bounce. I would have liked a go but it turned out I had other – probably more important – things to do.
I brought some of my Jeanette books and a magazine with me in it and a lot of business cards. I would not have done this in the past, thinking it was presumptuous or pushy or something, but today I did. The books were great as they opened up a number of conversations. I spoke to all but three of the mums and had some really interesting conversations. I shared some of my own experiences and things I know and have learned through my work in the autism community and managing my own life. I think all of the mums got some value out of our conversations – and I know I did.
One thing I realised quite recently is about the ways other people view me, as an autistic person. My feeling has always been that I come across as a braggy, confident, extroverted, overachieving ego-monster. (And i accept that I might for some people). I am surprised that people see me differently to this view. I am an overachiever but how valuable is an autistic adult overachiever to parents of an autistic child? My accomplishments can be their child’s accomplishments. My understanding of the world which enables my achievement can translate to their child’s life and how they relate to their child. So, in that context it made sense that my books were very popular.
Most of the parents I spoke to thanked me for my work in the community. Of course my work in the community has many rewards for me but heartfelt thanks from parents is one of the nicest rewards I can receive.
I am motivated by the kinds of things that I see at events like today’s. The woman who introduced herself and her daughter with ‘I’m new’ and i got talking towards the end of the event. She said that her daughter had never had a friend but today she met a friend and they played together for ages and swapped phone numbers. The mum apologised for being teary. I said ‘I’m teary too’ and I was. When I see events like this for young girls I always reflect on my own life. I went through hell as a teenager and young adult, mostly due to bullying and also being told by almost everyone in my life how I was unable to do things and must be a sort of wrong and broken girl. Despite this I have achieved great things. Imagine these girls today, girls whose parents have some understanding of their particular challenges and their skills. These girls who this morning walked into a room full of other girls who ‘get’ them, unlike many of their peers. Girls who are told positive and affirming things, living in a world where autism is much better understood, a world where there are supports – despite there still needing a lot to be done. How much more are their journeys through life going to be changed for the better with all this as the backdrop to their experience?
I imagine them having the experience I did in the room full of other autistic girls, only they are having at at 8 or 10 years old instead of 35. They have access to their autistic identities. They are likely to get to ‘come home’ to their culture in their formative years where it can influence their life for the better. That is why today was magical for me.