Paul, 32.

I’m Paul. I enjoy hugs, French, tango dancing, metal music, and breaking down stereotypes. When I was at school, I found it really hard to make friends. I felt unsupported in the sense that I didn’t really feel like I fit in, and there wasn’t anyone looking out for me. School almost felt like a friendship competition where there were winners and losers – there was a lot of anxiety around whether or not you were doing the right thing, whether you’d be accepted, and whether anyone would want to be your friend. That’s not a safe place to be.

School was not an enjoyable place. Feeling unsupported and like I didn’t fit in made me feel alone, unmotivated, and disinterested in school. I guess one thing I will say about being inclusive is that you can’t pick and choose who you’re inclusive of. To be inclusive means to include everyone – you can’t include everyone except one person and call your school or classroom inclusive. There’s no such thing as ‘more inclusive’ or ‘less inclusive’, you’re either inclusive or you’re not. When I was 16, I found a youth group that had a big emphasis on community and inclusion. In my youth group we spoke about serious topics and people took you seriously. I felt valued. It is crucial to feel listened to without being made fun of. In my youth group I didn’t feel anxious about whether or not I was doing the right thing, or whether or not I’d be accepted – the culture was one of inclusivity, so I had none of the anxiety.

I managed alright academically at school, but university was much easier because I got to learn how I wanted to. I chose to study Aerospace Engineering at university, and worked for five years at Boeing after my graduation. In my first year university, I averaged over 90% because I studied in my own way. A person’s learning style is extremely important to get right. Encouraging people to identify their learning style, and allowing people to leverage the strengths of their learning style makes a huge difference. I was lucky that I was quite self-aware which means that I could do this on my own at high school – but that’s not everyone’s reality. Often people on the Autism Spectrum know what they’re not good at because that’s what they’re faced with every day, but they don’t know what they are good at.

I was really lucky in that I knew what a lot of my strengths were throughout school, and I could identify and leverage them by myself. At I CAN, we help people to find their strengths even if they don’t know what they are. Everyone has strengths. We help people define their strengths and learning styles, so that they can thrive.

We need your help. Join us by donating or giving monthly. Together, we can create employment opportunities for people on the Autism Spectrum, and can support schools and workplaces to celebrate their individual strengths.

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