Employment: To disclose or not to disclose

I am out loud and proud as Autistic, ADHD, non-binary and asexual pretty much everywhere including at work. It does not occur to me that disclosure / coming out is an option! When I started my public service career I had to provide a letter from my psychiatrist at the time about my schizophrenia so HR knew all about that and I disclosed my autism as well. Back then disclosure of my autism was mostly due to the fact I had published a book all about being autistic so figured should any HR practitioners google me they would find out anyway.

I have had almost 100 per cent positive and supportive responses to my disclosing. I do it now for similar reasons but also because I do not like to keep such important parts of my identity a secret. I also don’t think it should be a secret. It is not shameful or something I want to hide.

In terms of my Queer identities I am also open about those too for similar reasons. I always say that I don’t like closets – they are dark and scary and isolating. And I don’t think I should have to be in the closest about my gender and sexuality. Once again they are not things to be ashamed of. They are actually things to be celebrated in my opinion.

My being ‘out’ also gives others license to be out themselves which has to be a good thing. 

However not everyone has had the positive response that I have. Disclosure of neurodivergence can result in a range of unpleasant issues including not getting jobs to being passed over for career advancement to outright prejudice,. And being out as a transgender or asexual person can result in a lot of bigotry and discrimination. 

Disclosure and coming out are not decisions to take lightly. There can be some great consequences and some dreadful ones. I always suggest making a strategy around disclosure. Do you intend to disclose? What do you want to say? At what point in the recruitment process do you want to say it (e.g. on application, at interview, when you get offered the job, when you start or a while after you start)? Who do you want to tell (you manager, HR, your colleagues or all of these)? You might not always do what you plan but I find it helpful to have some guidance behind me before I actually do the disclosing. Also each workplace is different and within workplaces each team and manager is different so what works well in one setting my not work in another.

Disclosure is a difficult topic. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong answer. It is a decision requiring consideration. Also it can help to plan a contingency is disclosure goes awry. What will you do? Who will support you? Is the exclusionary behaviour against your employer’s code of conduct and if so will you take action? The worst outcome is that you are discriminated against and lose your job. Of course it is illegal to discriminate or terminate a person’s employment due to their neurotype, sexuality or gender but it can be very difficult to prove that is what happened. 

It would be so nice if we lived in a world where we didn’t even have to consider issues with disclosure and coming out but sadly we do not – yet. I will continue to be out loud and proud. I remember a colleague many years ago coming up to me in the corridor and whispering ‘I have schizophrenia too but don’t tell anyone.’ This made me so sad. I have never kept my illness a secret but I completely understand why someone would because there is a lot of bigotry and ableism around the diagnosis. 

I sometimes think I occupy a different world to others. Over decades of employment I have rarely encountered issues due to disclosing my autism and mental health issues or even my gender but I know others certainly do. I don’t know why I have largely escaped issues but I have and for that I am most grateful. I want a world where disclosure isn’t even a consideration – people just do it in the same way they provide an employer with other information such as their name, address or date of birth. 

From desperate self-destructive prisoner to Yennski – or how two thoughts changed my life 

This post is a self-reflective sort of one – I do them from time to time!

Anyone who has read my autobiography knows that I spend three years of my life in prison and about even more in mental health residential facilities and hospitals. I was poor and desperate and nothing ever seemed to go right for me. So how the hell did I get to who I am now? These days I have a range of very good things including:

  • a home which I own
  • An amazing job
  • A smoochy cat
  • A good relationship with my parents
  • Some lovely friends 
  • A good profile online 
  • A masters degree
  • Twelve published books with five more on the way
  • And probably some other things I can’t think of.

My life is basically impossible. I should not exist, but I do exist so how come?

Between 1994 and early 2000 I was a very different me. I sought out negative things and self destruction. I was a criminal and did a lot of very negative things of which I am still very ashamed. I was not just a prisoner but one of the most desperate and self—loathing individuals you would ever meet. I actively pursued destruction and negativity. There was apparently no hope for me at all. 

Let me go back in time to the early 1980s. I was nine and my dad had a new friend. This person was a management consultant and was very astute in assessing the character of people. This included me. Apparently this friend said ‘Yenn will get whatever they aim for in life.’ He was absolutely correct. So when I finally began to see a different life for myself in late 1999 then this actually meant something. In late 1999 I thought that a new millennium should equal a new life. I was released from prison a few weeks later and that was my last time as a prisoner.

About a year later I had a further helpful thought. I was living in supported accommodation for young people with mental illness. The house was in a very swanky suburb. Seeing women walking their babies in the park and knowing that their partners earned enough to have a single-income relationship AND pay off a million dollar mortgage got me thinking. I didn’t want to be super wealthy but I wanted to be ‘ordinary’ – meaning I would have an education, a job, and mortgage and a suit. At this point I had been out of prison less than a year. This was a pivotal moment in my life and within less than eight years I had all those things that I aimed for.

Thoughts like this – Yennski epiphanies if you like – make such a difference. And yes, as soon as I started to seek out positive things they came my way! Absolutely preposterous I know and I am NOT a fan of the ‘put it in the world and it will happen’ thinking because life is a lot more complex than that but for me those two thoughts – the new millennium and being ordinary – changed the course of my life. It was still hard – and it is STILL hard – but it made a difference. 

I had a clozapine nurse once tell me I was an anomaly. I think he meant it in a nice way and it is true that I am a bit unlikely. I have gone from being a homeless prisoner with major drug issues to being a person whose work reaches thousands of people and who has a following of people who love my writing and presentations. I am always grateful, always. I remember what it was to be in that world of crime and violence and how I live in my own home with a beautiful cat and a lovely job and friends who like me for who I am not someone who masks in order to be socially accepted. I am a proud autistic and non-binary person. I am one of a small percentage of people with schizophrenia to have a job they love and a home they own. It is all entirely unlikely and preposterous but that is what it is. And a big thank you to whatever power is out there that was smiling on me when I decided a new millennium should equal a new life. It did.

About schizophrenia – my experience

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1995. In true Yenn style I refused to accept the diagnosis properly for a further 25 years! When I had my first episode of illness I was very confused and frightened. I thought the world was goring to end tomorrow and that people could read my mind. I even thought a pay phone was sending mean messages to me – ‘your family hate you’ ‘you’re going to die’ that sort of thing. I had been using drugs in a big way in the lead up to my first episode of illness and was about to be evicted from my squalid share house so was very stressed and I have since learned that extreme stress causes psychosis -well for me it does. I can’t speak for others. 

I ended up spending some weeks in hospital where I gained my schizophrenia diagnosis. I had been diagnosed as autistic the previous year – and I was in big denial about that one as well. To my mind I didn’t have an illness and I wasn’t autistic. All these psychiatrists were making things up! Actually they weren’t. I DO have schizophrenia and I AM autistic but these were hard things to accept. I didn’t want a disability and a diagnosis of nerd and another one of social outcast. Schizophrenia was so stigmatised that I hated the idea that it might apply to me.

I have been taking medication since 1995. It is scary stuff. The one I am currently taking is called Clozapine and it is a very scary medication indeed. It can cause life-threatening side effects and the non-life threatening side effects are pretty unpleasant too. My illness scares me so I take the medication. 

Psychosis to me is basically inhabiting a waking nightmare. When I am psychotic I think frightening things – ‘I am dead and in purgatory’ ‘God is punishing me’, I have paranoid thoughts, the TV is talking to me and people are saying insulting things to me and calling my name when in fact they are not and I see scary things like ghosts. I have a lot of insight into my illness, which is mostly a good thing but not so much when I am acutely unwell. When I am unwell my insight means I am looking down at my psychotic self and saying ‘stop it. You shouldn’t be thinking like this. Just sop it’ but of course I can’t stop it because that is mostly beyond my control.

There are lots of myths and assumptions around schizophrenia. If you believe these then I would be violent, unable to participate in society in any way and I would have some kind of split personality! In reality, people with schizophrenia are not generally violent an don’t have a split personality. And in terms of work, well we are  overrepresented in unemployment statistics but many people with schizophrenia – including me – can work or engage in other activities in society.

I tend to have an episode of illness every few years and then be OK for a few more. The episode usually takes about two or three years to run its course and then I am OK for a few more years. When I am unwell I spent lots of time in hospital and am often unable to work. Thank goodness for supportive employers and income protection insurance! The medication I am on now for psychosis is considered the last line of defence for people with schizophrenia. It is very affective so I am hoping I avoid psychosis entirely in the future. Psychotic episodes – aside from being very unpleasant – can result in damage to the brain which given that I work in a fairly knowledge-based job and that I am an author and advocate, I would rather avoid.

I think that I manage my illness well but I am often afraid that I will because unwell again. It is a constant struggle between my brain and me. I do my best to ensure I stay healthy – I take my meds, avoid stressful situations where possible and put in place other strategies to address my illness. Schizophrenia is not my friend. With my autism and ADHD I am quite reconciled to those and see tham as more positive than negative but my schizophrenia is an arse and I would like it to go away! I guess the positive with it is that it keeps me free of the entitlement that many people in my position as a very accomplished person with a high powered job might experience. I never take what I have for granted which is actually a good thing,  

Neurodiversity – how far we have come and how far we have to go

Yesterday I was part of a panel on the topic of neurodiversity at work for an audience of human resources professionals. Joining me on stage were three other neurodivergent advocates, I had a bit of a Yennski epiphany…. LOVE a good epiphany! I realised that I was no longer the expert in autistic lived experience and that there are so many more advocates who have really helpful and empowering things to say. 

When I started my own advocacy journey it was 2005 and my first book had just been accepted for publication. Before that, I received my autism diagnosis in 1994 at the age of 20. I have been a diagnosed autistic person for almost 30 years and an advocate for almost 20. I have seen so much change. Mostly things have improved a lot but there is a long way to go. 

When I was first diagnosed almost nobody knew what autism was. As time went on people had heard of it, then they would say ‘my [insert relative] has that. It’s a real affliction’ to now when most people have some concept of what neurodiversity is. The stigma and discrimination is still an issue but it is challenged a lot more now. It used to be the case that neurotypical parents of autistic kids would regularly come out with very negative statements. Autism was seen as a ‘disorder’ and something in need of curing. The anti-vax proponents put back the cause of inclusion with their fear-mongering and talk of an autism ‘epidemic.’ Life as an autistic advocate often felt a lot like pushing crap uphill!

A few years later I noticed a change. The thing which hit me most was an article that SBS Online did on neurodiversity. The first thing that struck me was it being about neurodiversity – a concept and term which were little known outside neurodivergent circles. The other thing was that not only had they not contacted me for comment, they had included the thoughts of some advocates who I had never heard of. Things were changing! It used to be the case that every media thing about autism – or so it seemed – required the opinion of myself and one of five or so other advocates.

These days things are very different to thirty or even ten years ago. When I started out there were about five autistic authors and visible advocates in Australia. Now I think that figure is closer to 500. I love how things have changed and are changing but we mustn’t be complacent. Things can change in a negative direction as well. And we are far form ‘done’ in terms of respect and inclusion. There are still huge numbers of neurodivergent people that are unemployed or face discrimination in other areas of life. Mental health issues are a huge problem for many neurodivergent folks and accessing healthcare for these can be very fraught. Autistic people die younger than their neurotypical peers and we are often on the receiving end of violence or being taken advantage of.

We need to continue to build on the gains we have made. Neurodivergent folks have the right to inclusion and respect. We need positive representation across society – in popular culture, in business and politics. I think if we have come as far as we have then we should be able to address the issues and make a world which includes neurodivergent people. If a handful of advocates in the 1990s and early 2000s could effect change then how much more can the thousands of advocates working around the world at the moment achieve? We need to make inclusion for neurodivergent folks front and centre. And on a personal note, I LOVE that I am no longer the only person organisations invite to do talks and workshops. Firstly because I am tired after almost 20 years and secondly because all our different views are valid and it is much better to have a range of ideas and perspectives. The other advocates bring their perspectives and wisdom and it is a very good thing. So let’s keep changing the world! 

Little kitty therapists – the value of kitties (and puppies, and birds and…)

I recently became human parent to a little tortoiseshell kitty who I have called Sunflower. She is absolutely beautiful and the latest in a long line of feline friends that I have been privileged to share my home and life with.

I always say that I am better with a cat and I am. I have loved cats from the moment I discovered their existence. They are very good for my mental health. In fact I can credit a previous Yennski cat, the prince among felines that was Mr Kitty, with keeping me out of the psych ward for many years. I remember shortly after I adopted him that a mental health worker said there was a spot in a respite service that I had used in the past. I replied that I didn’t need it because I was in respite every single day without leaving the house due to my new kitty.

I used to call Mr Kitty my little black kitty therapist. They are actually ALL therapists. Sunflower makes me so happy. Before I adopted her I had stress-related exam on my hands. It was so bad that it was cracked and bleeding but within a week of having Sunflower it had vanished. When I am at work I get to the end of the day and look forward to coming home to a smoochy kitty person. 

I really do go much better if I have a cat. I know cats on a deep level. I can’t do human body language but feline body language is easy! Patting a purring cat is as better for my mental health than almost anything else. The pet rescue service that I adopted Sunflower from was extremely strict. I had to satisfy a lot of criteria – which of course I am all for! I wouldn’t want an abuser adopting kitties. In response to my application they said any cat would be very happy to have me as a human. I really do love cats and I connect with them more than I do with most humans. I have said in the past that if when I die I go to wherever the cats go I will be very happy! I used to say that I could pat Mr Kitty for a happy eternity and the same is true for Sunflower. 

I am actually not alone among autistic people here. A large number of autistic people connect on a significant level with animals – be that cats or dogs or with nature. My mum is autistic. She doesn’t bond with cats or dogs but is very much a fan of nature and all its beauty. She knows the Latin names of thousands of plants and is something of an expert on fungi. I do know a lot of autistic people who have a similar bond to cats as I do or some with dogs or birds or snakes. Our animal friends and companions ‘get’ us. More the neurotypical people do. I never have to worry about Sunflower bullying, abusing, ghosting or ostracising me. I understand her and I think she understands me in her sweet little furry way. There is no confusing complexity in our relationship. She is easy for me to connect with. She will never gaslight me or manipulate me. I am not sure why other autistic people are so often close to animals and nature but we definitely seem to be. Maybe it is for similar reasons to me, maybe not. 

Autistic parents of Autistic kids – or why my mum is amazing

Just a caveat on this… I am more than a little biased about how awesome my mum is…

Lots of autistic people have autistic parents. It is currently a common thing for people to realise they are autistic when they are doing an assessment for their child. I myself am an autistic child of an autistic parent. My mum was diagnosed some years ago so now are now a little club of two Purkis autists. While I now love the fact that my mum and me are both neurodivergent and share a lot of things, this wasn’t always the case.

As a child I was viewed as strange. I suffered a lot of bullying and hated my ‘difference’. I wanted to be like the other kids but try as I did it never happened. My mum was always there for me as a child but I know she struggled with me at times too. As a young child I was very energetic and viewed as quite ‘naughty’. My mum tells me that when I was small if there was silence it meant I was doing something dire! People would judge my mum’s parenting, thinking my ‘poor’ behaviour must be my mum’s fault. 

I am 48, which, aside from meaning I am quite middle aged, also means I was undiagnosed as a child. The appropriate diagnosis did not exist until I was an adult. I am also ADHD which probably added to my quirkiness and challenging exploits as a child. 

As a young adult I found myself in trouble with the law. I spent over three years in prison. The remarkable thing about this was that my parents never stopped supporting me. I was the most desperate, self-destructive person with a horrible life and a negative approach to things but they were still there the whole time. 

I got my autism diagnosis in 1994 at the age of 20. I was one of the first adults diagnosed in Australia. My parents were delighted as my diagnosis explained a lot. My troubles were not so much due to poor parenting but due to being neurodivergent ain a world that doesn’t understand neurodivergent experience. It took me a lot longer to accept my autism but when I did I started looking at people in my life who may also be autistic and my mum was front and centre!

My relationship with my parents had always been challenging. In my twenties I blamed my mum for all my problems, even writing a long document about all her apparent shortcomings (I still have this somewhere!). As I grew in my autistic identity I learned that I was not alone in thinking my mum was autistic – she thought so too. A few years ago at Christmas I was visiting my parents. My mum gave me a little card she had made. She said it was an early Christmas gift. The card said my mum was going to seek an autism assessment. I was delighted.

My mum did get her diagnosis. She is an autistic advocate in her own way – a much gentler and less flashy kind of advocacy to me but just as valid. 

I love having an autistic mum, It means that she understood me as a child when few others did. A family friend once reflected that he had seen my mum explaining things to me that I didn’t understand. She is kind and respectful and doesn’t judge anyone. My mum is a big environmentalist  and cares about all the creatures and plants in nature, even spiders! She is honest to a fault and will listen to anyone. My mum has passions and things she loves. She inherited an interest in fungi that I had as a small child and is now quite an expert in it. 

My mum has always been there for me, through thick and thin, and I know she will always be there for for me until she passes. I love having an autistic mum. I talk to her on the phone most days and she texts me every morning. I know my mum will probably struggle a bit with this piece as she is very humble but I think she is wonderful and her autism just makes her that and then some. 

Of course not everyone has the same experience as me. I have met autistic people who really struggle with their autistic parents. It definitely isn’t one size fits all but I think autistic parents can be amazing.  I am happy for my mum to have her diagnosis and I am happy for me to have my mum. 

A rags to middle class privilege story

As you may know I belong to a bunch of intersectional groups. I am neurodivergent, I have schizophrenia, anxiety and depression, I am transgender, often perceived as female, I am Asexual and have an extensive criminal history – albeit from quarter of a century ago. I was poor and reliant on the disability pension to pay my bills from 1995-2007. I lived in all manner of dodgy accommodation because I couldn’t afford anything better. 

However I now have some privilege. The ‘big’ privileges to my reckoning are white privilege and cisgender, straight male privilege. I have white privilege which is something I constantly need to be aware of and check where necessary. The other form of privilege I now have is middle class privilege. 

I posted some photos of my new IKEA bookcases in my study yesterday and it struck me that lots of people on my socials would not be able to afford such things – or a mortgage which I also have. I felt bad about posting pictures of things people might find exclusionary but I was torn between my joy at finally having an apartment that I love and my wish to not have people feel excluded. 

Class is a funny concept. I spent between 1990 and 1995 as a card carrying socialist. Socialists are definitely into the concept of class. It pervades their every act. As a teenage socialist I wanted to be poor and to be one of the ‘workers’. I succeeded admirably at being poor! I actually found – surprise surprise – that being poor was quite unpleasant. And once I got there is was a lot harder to escape poverty than it was to become poor!

The thing that got me the most was accommodation, I had no choice in where I lived for many years, moving form crisis accommodation to public housing. When I was in public housing I was desperate to get a ‘real’ job so I could escape my hosing situation. Almost all my neighbours in a big estate were alcoholics or drug users. I was desperate to fit in so became essentially an alcoholic myself. I was going to university at the time and felt caught between two worlds. I also had a neighbour who was a stalker. She made my life an absolute misery. I knew I needed to move into private rental or own a property to escape all this misery and that to do so I would need a ‘real’ (professional) job. 

I did make a pretty impressive leap from public housing and the difficulties that came with it and being middle class. I secured a public service graduate role in 2007 and moved to Canberra. My life changed almost instantly. I moved into a share house with a fellow public servant and life got much more manageable. I didn’t need to get ridiculously drunk every night just to be accepted my my neighbours. And I could buy groceries! When I was poor I could rarely buy anything from the supermarket for over $4. I was looked after by one of my public housing neighbours who treated me like her child. If it hadn’t been for the friend  I would not have been able to afford going to university. This neighbour loved to cook and gave me dinner most nights. 

I am a very determined person which enabled me to take a trajectory from poverty to wealth. I also have white privilege which would have made a difference I think and my ability to mask means I could fit in with whatever group I was in – even if it came at the cost of my identity. I know that what I did to change my circumstances is unlikely and unusual but I also know it is possible, because I did it. Really I am not all that amazing. My escape form poverty involved a number of decisions an opportunities but I am quite proud that I did it. And I can say despite the costs for maintenance and stress involved if the plumbing goes bung, Yennski Central, the apartment I own – is 1000 times nicer than where I was before. 

There is a danger for autistic folks who are middle class or who – like me – overcome class discrimination. This danger is where people judge other autistics for being unemployed or poor. This is not OK. There are huge structural barriers around class, employment and income and to overcome these sadly seems to be the exception and not the norm. When a famous autistic commentator said ‘autistic people who who are unemployed should get off their butts and get a job’ this was a highly unhelpful statement. Most autistic unemployed people I have met would be delighted to have a job but for any of a number ion reasons can’t get one. I know that not one day goes by that I am not grateful for my job and my home and wish success to anyone else trying to escape poverty and all that comes with it. 

Autism and friends – a personal journey

There is a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time which came out just around the time I started my advocacy career. The central character in this book was an autistic teenager. At one point in the book, he reflects that he would love to be in a spaceship alone and orbit the planet by himself for his entire life. This book put forward the idea that autistic people prefer solitude and don’t ‘do’ friends and relationships. When I read this I was quite surprised as I have always been a very social person. And now, almost twenty years later and having met thousands of other autistic people, this wish for permanent solitude is not something I have ever encountered. Certainly autistic people often have a strong need for solitude but we tend to want some social contact as well. The issue with ‘peopling’ tends to be more related to communication differences with neurotypical or allistic people rather than a wish to have no contact at all. Many autistic people absolutely love socialising with fellow autistic or neurodivergent people.

Friendships have often been an issue for me. As I mentioned, I am very social and always have been. As a child and teen I longed for friends but had very few. As a young adult I would do pretty much anything to be socially accepted. For example I was an extremely heavy drinker for the four years I lived in public housing, not because I was an addict in the usual sense but because I wanted social acceptance form my neighbours – most of whom where alcoholics. Social acceptance was something I would go to almost any lengths to archive.

I used to find that I experienced friends in two categories – people who I felt intimidated by and people who I found annoying. It was a sort of power dynamic and almost every friend I had fitted one or other of those groups. I didn’t really like my friends very much and had little in common with them but I needed to be socially accepted. I found that I started having genuine, reciprocal friendships as soon as I started to respect and like myself. When I was filled with guilt, low self-esteem and self loathing the people that gravitated towards me were usually people who wanted to take advantage of me. I was vulnerable and lacked assertiveness or the ability to set and maintain reasonable boundaries.

These days my friends are just lovely. I don’t have a big group of close friends but those I do are amazing. And I have some very unlikely friends, people that on paper you would think simply wouldn’t work but in reality are strong an enduring friendships. These days most of my friends are neurodivergent and many are Queer – although not all. I look forward to my social time and have no great need to seek social acceptance like I used to. I am enough just by myself.

One thing about friendships which makes me sad is when I lose friends. I recently had to excise someone from my life who I thought was a friend but who wasn’t. This has happened a few times, especially since I came out as non-binary in 2018. There are sadly a lot of transphobic bigots in the world. I also had a friend for many years who I always felt uncomfortable with and eventually realised was toxic so I excised them from my life as well. And some people have excised me from their lives. This is all very sad and leaves me wondering what I did wrong. I think that sort of thing hits autistic people very hard. We may struggle to find and keep friends and we may have low self-esteem. So when we lose a friend it leaves us filled with questions and can trigger self-loathing.

I will say that I would prefer to have no friends at all than have toxic friends. I wish I was more assertive when I was younger and that I had some self-esteem and a sense that I had value as a person. It would have made my life so much easier. If I moved into somewhere where everyone was an alcoholic again I am pretty sure I wouldn’t feel the need to endanger my health in order to fit in, I would be the cranky autistic trans person who didn’t join in the fun and you know what? I would like that. I do not need to be accepted by everyone in every situation I am in. If people don’t like me – well that is their right and I don’t need universal popularity. Gee I wish I had known that 35 years ago! 

Autistic burnout

Autistic people tend to be prone to burnout. I know I am! Burnout happens when you take on too many things or when life is overwhelming for a prolonged period. It can creep up on you. I am a shocker for burnout simply because of the size and complexity of my various workloads. In the course of a month I will:

  • Go to work in a responsible job for 4 1/2 days per week
  • Write  at least four blog posts
  • Create a Yeme or two
  • Give more than one talk or prepare talks or practice talks – or all three!
  • Respond to queries from people all over the world
  • Write an article for someone
  • Maybe do some media
  • Attend a committee meeting or two
  • Review or endorse a book 
  • …and maybe a few more things! It can be quite a lot to manage.

I have experienced burnout although probably less often that you might imagine with my workload! The reason I avoid burnout is that I love almost everything I do which means it is not a chore or a burden but a passion. On the occasions I have become burned out it has always related to people rather than work tasks. On one occasion I had a person who was very angry at the world using me to vent with. This person would message me dozens of times a day. Every time I heard a message alert then my anxiety would go sky high. It was awful and it took me months to ask this person to leave me alone. I am more assertive now so I would say something sooner if the same thing happened now but at the time I just felt trapped and stressed.

My problem with burnout is that I don’t see it coming. Because I love all my work I am reluctant to decline anything. I also have a chronic case of fear of missing out which doesn’t help! I have an analogy about burnout that I came up with recently. If you imagine you have a car with tyres that are getting a bit worn. You keep thinking about it but put off doing anything because you don’t think it is really a problem. This goes on for a while until you tyre blows out and you are left by the side of the road with a car that will need some attention before it works again. That definitely describes my experience. I put off doing anything, I say yes to everything and then remind myself that I might get burned out but then dismiss it again by which time I am burned out!

It is far preferable to avoid burnout before you get burned out! One thing I have which is also the image for this piece, is a ‘NO!!’ Buzzer. It sits on my desk and says ‘NO!!’ In a variety of amusing ways. My coauthor and lovely friend Dr Emma Goodall gave it to me ages ago. It was only partially a joke and I actually find it very helpful. My mum always worries about my workload and tells me to stop taking on so many things. Of course she is right but it can be hard. Perspective can be helpful. If I imagine I have a talk booked and I get in a car accident and can’t do the talk, do you think the world would end? Of course not. Perspective can help you decline or postpone things that overload you. I have also found that the state of my mental health impacts on whether I get burned out or not. The same things may occur but one time I will get burned out and the other not and the difference I can see is the state of my mental health. 

If you actually do get burned out it is essential to address it before it becomes entrenched. I have learned it is key to take time out. The message is still NO but also ‘Stop’. It can take a long time to get over burnout. You can learn from the experience – what it feels like, what your triggers were etc – so that you can hopefully avoid it again. I find my life is a constant battle to avoid burnout. And feel like I am probably not the best person to give advice on this given how I don’t always heed my own advice! 

All about April – twenty years of advocacy 

As an advocate I feel compelled to write about April. I would rather not truth be known but I think it is important as there are still a lot of unhelpful attitudes around autism ‘awareness’. However, I don’t want to write some negative piece despairing about all that is wrong in the world. Instead I want to talk about the past almost 20 years of my advocacy career and how things have changed and continue to change.

I wrote my first book, my autobiography, with the support of the amazing Polly Samuel in 2005. I was all of a sudden thrust into the world of autism advocacy – whether I wanted to be or not! People these days call me a trailblazer and that I am the giant in the expression ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ but when I first started my advocacy journey I was terrified! It was a different time. Of the advocates still working now in Australia, around five of them were around when I started out. Neurodiversity was a very new concept at the time and talking about anything positive around autism was met with incredulity is dismissiveness from allistic folks. Social media barely existed and most of the discussion around autism came from neurotypical parents of autistic kids, many of whom were not very autism positive to say the least! 

As time went on things changed, Firstly they changed for me! For the first few years after my autobiography came out I was not a very passionate advocate. I did talks if asked but I was too busy enjoying my new professional job and being passionate about that to think much about the autistic community. In 2012 everything changed. I met a young autistic man who had been severely disabled by the people in his life not giving him the chance to do anything. He had been shielded from any issues or challenges and when I told him I was an autistic public servant who had written a book he called me a liar and said it was impossible. Enter Yennski’s passion for advocacy! I was horrified by how this man had been so severely limited by the attitudes of others and their deficits thinking. I realised that if there was one person like this then there would surely be more. So I set about trying to change the world – and I am still on that path now over ten years later!

Over the years I have seen a lot of changes in attitudes around autism. When I started out:

  • there was very little view of autism having any positives
  • The only representation of autistic people in media etc was negative and based in stereotypes
  • Autism was seen as a negative – a curse or an affliction
  • Autistic voices were rare or non-existent in the dialogue around autism
  • There were hardly any autistic advocates or activists 
  • ‘Warrior parents’ drove the narrative
  • ABA and other harmful therapies went unchecked  

Of course lots of this still goes on but the difference is that it usually gets challenged. I  remember a few years ago seeing an article online about neurodiversity. I was delighted and amazed as it was the first reference to neurodiversity in the popular media that I had ever seen. When I looked at the names of the autistic people that were quoted there were some I had never come across! I was delighted. 

And now to April… Autism awareness used to be the April thing. Many autistic people really don’t like this. I certainly don’t. The event used to be driven by a very problematic organisation which is stuck in the dark ages and the whole idea of awareness bothers me. I mean bullies are aware of their victim being different. Awareness alone ifs pretty pointless and unhelpful. In the past few years wether have bene some great challenges to the whole April light it up blue thing. At first it was just autistic activists who raised issues but now it is more mainstream and even neurotypical people who have little or no lived experience are willing and even keen to promote a more inclusive approach. There are other days and events which are more inclusive too, such as Neurodiversity Week in March and Neurodivergent / Autistic Pride Day in June. 

I will finish with another anecdote from my life – I do love a good anecdote! A while back a certain TV personality decided to shoot their mouth off and blaming his poor behaviour on his being autistic – despite the fact that he wasn’t autistic – and autism is neither a reason or an excuse for violence. I saw the posts and so many people had criticised this person for their poor behaviour. The criticism was from the mainstream, not just advocates. We still have a very long way to go but as someone who has been around for a very long time I can say with some hope that things are changing and often changing for the better. 

I’m not ‘aware’ for April, I’m reflective and filled with hope for the future. And after almost twenty years of doing this I wonder if I might get to retire sometime? I think the current group of amazing advocates and activists probably demonstrates that as a possibility… but I will still write the books. I love writing books!