I was facilitating my most excellent autism women’s group – also welcoming of non-binary, trans and intersex folk – and got in a conversation with one of the attendees. They are relatively recently diagnosed as autistic and were inspired by me selling my property. They said something similar to ‘I never realised autistic people can buy property but seeing you selling your apartment made me think maybe I can buy somewhere too’. This conversation got me thinking about autism and what we are ‘supposed’ to do and not do.
I am 46 and don’t drive and a lot of the reason for that is people’s negative views about my capability to drive coupled with my anxiety. Nobody encouraged me to learn to drive and lots of people said I couldn’t so I never learned. Maybe if people had more confidence in me I would now have a licence.
This is a big issue for autistic people. There is so much negativity and deficits thinking around our capability that we often just don’t do things even if we would be really good at those things or we really want to. This is not only the case for kids, it relates to adults too.
Autism tends to be viewed as being entirely negative by society. Autistic people are told what we cannot do and as a result it often means that we don’t even try. I have tried to ignore this in my life but it is really pervasive. I am lucky in a way as I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until I was 20. I did a lot of things that if I had a diagnosis I think I would have been discouraged from doing. I moved out of home at the age of 17 and got a job shortly afterwards. I think if I had a diagnosis I would not have been allowed to leave home and live independently. I don’t think on reflection moving out at 17 was necessarily a very wise move but it did give me a lot of confidence and skills that I have used in later life.
In addition to autism I have schizophrenia. I also have a very difficult past which includes a lot of trauma. When I was 26 I decided to make some major changes in my life. I was a recently released ex-prisoner and was living in supported accommodation. Few people had any faith in my capability to do anything much but I wasn’t listening to those attitudes. I decided to go to university with a view to finding a graduate job, moving out of public housing and buying my own property. I think a lot of people would think this life trajectory would be impossible but I achieved it, moving to Canberra for work in 2007 and buying Whimsy Manor in 2008. I achieved the supposedly impossible and I did it by not listening to the negativity – be that my own self-talk or the negative messages from others.
I think expectations and assumptions can be so unhelpful. When disability / neurodivergence / disadvantage is thrown into the mix people can doubt their capability so don’t try anything challenging even when they really want to do it. Society needs to change and those negative expectations need to be ditched. Why shouldn’t an autistic person buy property or drive a car or go to university? One area where this deficits thinking can become extreme is around parenting. People with disability are so often discouraged from having kids and when they do have kids their parenting is called into question. This is so unhelpful. I know a load of autistic and neurodivergent parents who are fantastic at parenting. In fact having neurodivergent parents for neurodivergent kids is often a big positive. Attitudes around this need to change. I absolutely love my autistic mum and when I was growing up she was always explaining the world that I found so confusing. When I was having a hard time as a young adult she was there without judgement and with support and understanding. I wouldn’t want my mum to be any way other than being her beautiful autistic self.
I think we need to be aware of the messages we give autistic people both as individuals and as a society. I want a world where autistic people don’t doubt our capability and avoid doing things we want to because of expectations and assumptions. I am not that remarkable a person but when I set the assumptions and expectations aside I managed to complete a masters degree, get a professional job and buy – and sell – property. If I can do challenging things that I want to, I think anyone who wants to probably can too – with the right encouragement and support. If all we are told is what we can’t do than that message will become true.
Me with my 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year award, shattering some expectations.