I’ve worked for the I CAN Network since it first started in late 2013, as a mentor, network leader and speaker. I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Linguistics, Creative Writing and French at the University of Melbourne. I host radio shows about Arts and Culture, Queer Youth, Disability, Neurodiversity and Linguistics on the Student Youth Network and Radio Fodder. I’m a huge film buff, maker of puns, pop music aficionado, and long-time Autism advocate (since I was 13).
In early-mid primary school, at the age when my peers were becoming mature enough to notice that I was different from them, but nowhere near mature enough to understand my differences, I’d given up on trying to connect with them – as a friend at least. It had been so long since anyone had given me a chance to be a good friend to them that I’d almost forgotten how to do it. To get your foot in the door and start becoming friends with someone just seemed impossibly complicated. To do that, I had to be “normal,” whatever the person’s narrow definition of that was. There were so many unspoken, unexplained, illogical rules I would have had to follow to make that happen, and if I ever broke just one of them I’d drive the person away.
As much as film, TV and books were a form of escapism, any time I came across a story about schoolkids, sooner or later the “ordinary” main character would come across a “weirdo” character who the audience was supposed to laugh at, just as the protagonist was laughing at them. That was always the moment I realised our “hero” character was actually a bully, and I’d move back to my usual fantasy adventure fodder where I knew I’d be safe.
Getting people my age to like me just seemed to be way too hard, but getting people to hate me was easy. My peers were so easy to annoy because there were countless things that annoyed them, so it just came naturally to me. I look back on this now being almost like my super villain origin story. I started off accidentally annoying or offending people, and always being laughed at and looked down upon. I just wanted to be taken seriously for once, so I started pretending that I was doing it all on purpose. Then I actually started doing it on purpose a few times because it made me feel powerful, visible, and actually connected, in some twisted way. Being hated was still awful, but somehow not as bad as being ignored.
Towards the end of Grade 4 someone finally gave me a chance to be a good friend to them. They didn’t react at all to my initial attempts here and there to annoy them (it took a while to break the habit) but responded to me being nice to him by being nice to me in return. If you’re someone who struggles with initiating conversation, or social outings, it’s always helpful when the other person does that for you, at least at first. When someone else makes an effort that encourages you to also make an effort. It’s much easier to show an interest in someone if they show an interest in you, and much easier to listen to them talk about what they’re interested in if they’ve done the same with you. We weren’t even into the same things really, or at least not as much as you might expect. There’s this very primary-school-idea that friendship means having as many things in common as humanly possible: gender, hobbies, interests, age, height, sporting ability, place of residence. I’d spent ages waiting for my peers to grow up and grow out of this idea, and finally one of them did. Gradually, more and more of them started to realise that you can actually make friends with people who are different to you, and how that’s actually better than just hanging out with a cluster of clones.
For many people on the Spectrum, I CAN may be the first place where anyone has given them a chance to show just how good a person they actually are. People on the Spectrum are often told that they need to meet other people halfway, that they need to compromise or show more interest in their fellow human beings. This is incredibly difficult to do if it’s never been modeled for you, and a hard thing to motivate yourself towards if your efforts are never rewarded – if no one’s ever really done it for you. I CAN might just be the first place where they feel that any of these efforts are rewarded, and where someone else might actually make that effort for them.
Autism means I sometimes miss things that most people would notice and focus on a lot of things that most people don’t notice. It’s given me the courage to be myself, enjoy the things I’m passionate about and not waste time pretending to like the things I’m not interested in. That some other people may not like me for this is merely an afterthought.
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