I am by anyone’s estimation something of an anomaly. An ex-prisoner who has become a career public servant, a many times published author and community leader. An autistic and schizophrenic person who owns property and has featured on a large number of media outlets around the world. I should have died dozens of times over but didn’t. I am, to put int mildly, highly unlikely.
People often see autism as only a negative but this isn’t what I see – not in the lives of others but particularly not in my own life. Autism certainly played a part in some of the challenges which threatened my life but that was often more in relation to the attitudes of others around my autistic characteristics. For example I was bullied mercilessly at school pretty much from start to finish but the bullying was the problem rather than my autism. In a world where people were treated with kindness and respect it wouldn’t have been an issue. Likewise the criminal partner who ushered me into the darkest period in my life was only able to draw me towards him due to the fact I was lonely and longed to be accepted. I was so desperate for approval and companionship that I overlooked my partner’s negative behavior. I was vulnerable and he took advantage of me. In a world where vulnerable people were supported and cared for rather than exploited I would not have had this problem and would probably have avoided five years of drugs and prison and being victimised relentlessly.
So what about the life-saving stuff? Well one thing which helped me survive in the world of criminals and drug addicts was masking. I’m not saying masking is a particularly useful quality but in my situation it enabled me to get by and avoid violence on several occasions. It did mean that when I got away from that world of drugs and crime that I needed to work out my character and decide what attributes I wanted for myself which was actually a very positive thing. Another element related to autism which helped me survive in those dark times was my love of music. I spent most of my time in prison in the management unit which meant I was mostly by myself. Music was my company. I recorded a number of tapes from the radio (yes young people, we had cassette tapes then!!) Music was my friend and it kept me going.
Another time when my autism saved me was in my determination when I eventually wanted to change my life. In the lead up to the millennium I decided I needed to escape the world I had been inhabiting for the previous few years. I decided that the new millennium should equal a new life for me. I was released from prison in February 2000 and I was determined to stay in the world of free people. I was sent to a therapy course and I used my focus to get as much help as I could. I remember making lists of the reasons I didn’t want to go back to prison and reasons I liked being free. At this point in my life I was an institutionalised recidivist who most people had written off as a hopeless case. I had major mental illness issues and was considered incapable of being part of society. The people thinking that evidently didn’t have any understanding of just how determined I was.
I finished the therapy course and decided to enrol in university. I had realised that I wanted to be ‘ordinary’ – to have a professional job, a mortgage, an education and a suit. I didn’t tell anyone of this intention as I realised they would doubt me but it kept me going. In fact I had all of those things within eight years of making that resolution.
My autism gave me a number of useful attributes – motivation, determination, honesty, creative talent (I completed a bachelor, honours and masters of Fine Art). When the time came for me to apply for my ‘ordinary’ job (a graduate role in the Australian Public Service) I had quite a unique approach, I realised that the public service doesn’t usually hire people with criminal histories but I also realised that I would be a very proficient public servant and I would probably enjoy the work. I realised that if I applied and they said no then things would be exactly the same as they were before I applied. There would be nothing lost. My honesty meant that I was upfront about my activities in the late 1990s at the earliest possible stage in the process. When I was offered the job provisional on a medical and a police check I provided a document listing what happened in the past and why it would never happen again. I provided character referees and a copy of my recently-published autobiography. The department conducted a review and decided to employ me. I am fairly certain that my autistic honesty and openness secured me my job. I am still in the service thirteen years later.
Thers days I don’t have to look too hard to find my autistic characteristics doing good things for me. Life is very different now to what it was 20 years ago. Back then everything was loaded and things could have gone wrong at any point with disastrous consequences. I am grateful to all those elements that make me who I am and have enabled me to overcome extreme challenges successfully. I see my autism as something which has the potential to help or hinder, largely dependent on others’ attitudes and behaviour.