* Sarah’s real name has been omitted for her privacy
Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
As a kid, my network of family, friends and teachers helped me turn ‘can’t’ into ‘can’. Sadly that’s not true for lots of other kids on the autism spectrum.
All my life I feel like a message has been building within me. That sounds dramatic to say I know. Nevertheless that’s how I feel. My family and friends were very deliberate with the message I received as a kid. The books I read, movies I watched, stories I heard and people I met all made me think ‘I can’.
When I was a kid I naturally wanted to say ‘I can’t’ to a lot of things. I felt different to my peers. Little things like wearing un-matching socks bothered me. I would throw extraordinary tantrums when my routine changed. I had obsessions; painting, family trees, words. People would look at me and ask, “Chris, why do you look so worried?”
To be honest at the time I couldn’t answer them. Only now having grown up can I say that my worry came from the conflict I felt between my own unique way of operating and the typical responses to the world around us I saw in other kids.
I operated differently because I had high-functioning autism. Autism is a spectrum of behaviours. It can cause a person to have social difficulties, anxiety, disruptive habits and obsessions. No two people experience the autism spectrum in the same way. Some people on this spectrum are non-verbal while some can independently regulate their difficulties.
The important thing to remember is that everyone on this spectrum has special abilities. Everyone can do special things. Autism is a gift because it enhances a person’s visual perception, memory, focus and intake of detail. Take Leonardo Da Vinci; experts have looked at historical accounts of his behaviour, his note taking and paintings, and argued that he was on the autism spectrum. Think of all that Da Vinci gave us!
The world has been benefiting from the autism spectrum since year dot. It’s only in the last 70 years that we have decided to give it a label. The gifts of people on this spectrum won’t always look like the Mona Lisa. Sometimes those gifts are as simple as a new way of seeing something, or an extraordinary list of all the royal houses of Europe – something I put together as an eight-year-old.
As a kid, my network of family, friends and teachers helped me turn ‘can’t’ into ‘can’. My ‘I can’ network made small adjustments to my home-life and school experience so that I felt more comfortable. They were patient, knowing I took a little longer to adapt to social situations, but that I would adapt.
They were motivational, inspiring me to be social in the schoolyard, participate in sports, attend school camps and take risks. They were disciplined, keeping me accountable to the rules that applied to everyone and only cutting me slack when my anxiety was overbearing. They were encouraging, choosing to see my obsessions as focused talents and inspiring me to translate those talents into academic and social success. I have this network to thank for helping me develop the confidence to take control of my difficulties.
Having been imprinted with an ‘I can’ attitude, it was a shock the day I heard Sarah* speak at a youth consultation I attended in Darwin as part of my role as 2009 Australian Youth Representative to the UN. Sarah said that being on the autism spectrum meant that she ‘couldn’t do things’. Reading between the lines I could tell that her surrounding environment had emphasised her struggles. Yet my environment had emphasised my strengths. My network trained me to see the autism spectrum as an endless source of quirks that kept me interesting! Academically, autism was my greatest advantage helping me to remember English lessons!
The label ‘autism spectrum’ should never limit what a person is capable of, no matter where they are on the spectrum, no matter what environment they need. After meeting Sarah I started speaking with students about the autism spectrum, I have reached 140 schools over the last four years. Sadly I have met many Sarah’s who have been made to feel as if their autism is a deficit. This stems from our trigger-happy nature in shooting out labels without explaining how they should be used. Imagine if a second Da Vinci was born in today’s world. Do you think he would be able to do today what he did in the 1400s? How many labels would society have tried to limit him by? Would we have gone so far as to pump him full of medication?
On the upside, I have also met many young people, parents and teachers on my travels that facilitate their own ‘I can’ networks similar to the one that supported me. The autism spectrum does not exist for people to say ‘I can’t’, it exists for people to say ‘I can’.
No disability is owned by an individual, it is owned by the environment. If we create an enabling environment, we reduce the need to distinguish the disability. We can all play a role in this. All of us interact with people on the spectrum in our social circles and workplaces. The sum of our collective patience, motivation, discipline and encouragement will create an environment that celebrates individual gifts.
All my life I feel like a message has been building in me. That message is that every child and young person on this spectrum can do anything they put their mind to, especially when they’re supported by networks of parents, grandparents, friends and teachers who say ‘I can’. When you involve yourself in these networks you don’t just benefit a child, you benefit yourself. There’s nothing more fulfilling than watching a child move from the prison of self-doubt to the freedom of self-belief.
Watch Chris’s TEDxMelbourne talk below:
* Sarah’s real name has been omitted for her privacy