‘Autism and resilience? Are you sure?’

Last year I was given the amazing opportunity to speak about Autism and resilience at the TEDx Canberra conference. At the after party I met a journalist who was covering the TEDx conference for the local paper. She asked me what I had spoken about. I responded ‘Autism and resilience’. The journalist made incredulous noises about how this was impossible and sidled off. Needless to say, there was no Jeanette article in the paper the next day!

The reason I spoke about Autism and resilience for TEDx Canberra was mostly due to a young man I met a while back. This man was 21 and had a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. He was evidently highly intelligent and perceptive but had finished school at age 15 because he ‘didn’t like it’. Fair enough, but he had no intention of completing his studies. He spent his days in his bedroom at his parents’ house, playing computer games. He had never driven a car or ridden the bus, so by a process of deduction, he had obviously been driven everywhere by family members. He seemed to think that employment was something that happened to other people and that he would never get a job. He was a lovely, thoughtful man but I worried that he would never gain an education or join the workforce and that this would be a huge waste of talent for the world, not to mention having a significant impact on the young man himself.

I thought about this man a lot  over the coming months and contrasted his teenage experience to my own. I had no diagnosis until I was twenty and indeed, none existed before then. Consequently there was no learning support, teachers’ aides or specialist Autism programs at school. I was bullied, I was miserable and no-one helped. I was told by teachers that ‘bullying strengthens character’. I somehow finished school with a very high score for Year 12 but the  whole experience left me damaged and filled with self-hatred. As an adult, I longed to have had an Autism diagnoses earlier then I did. But when I looked at the young man who had become ‘disabled’ by apparently having been shielded from most challenges, I could see that maybe it wasn’t as clear cut as that.

I said in my talk for TEDx Canberra that we need to diagnose kids early but that parents and schools need to build in some controlled minor ‘difficulties’ or challenges to help them build resilience, confidence and mastery. Here’s the TEDx talk if you want to watch it:

I think we need to approach a diagnosis in a young child as a first step to putting them on the path of building their confidence and resilience. So we don’t want people to have my experience where they get no help and end up hating themselves and we don’t really want the situation the young man I mentioned had where he seemed to have been shielded from everything remotely difficult and as such  will have struggles engaging in the world. We want awareness of Autism and its challenges with a good dollop of resilience and mastery thrown in. There, that’s probably what I should have said to the journalist…

TEDx pic

Jeanette at TEDx Canberra 2103