I was proud to be a speaker at the Yellow Ladybugs Symposium ‘Autistic Women & Girls: Mental Health’ on Saturday the 23rd of February. Not only was it a thrill sharing my Autistic lens with the audience, but it was a chance to connect with many likeminded individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Many of them I had an instant rapport with, and I felt like I had known them for a long time. It got me reflecting on my years as a young child and how excited I am for the future that is being shaped right now.
I am openly Autistic and non-binary. I was assigned female at birth (AFAB). These perspectives have made me passionate in providing my viewpoint on gender issues when it comes to Autism, particularly Autism stereotypes. Girls on the spectrum are still being missed due to them presenting differently to boys. Even with my early diagnosis at the age of 3, I knew people questioned my diagnosis. Whilst my mother was my best advocate in the world (and still is), my father did not understand ‘The Autism Thing’ and thought that my mother was exaggerating.
In primary school, I was the only Autistic individual that wasn’t a boy. And there were differences – I was interested in horses and animals, whereas they tended to gravitate more towards things like Lego and IT. Later on in life, I found Autistic friends across the gender spectrum that were more similar to me and also had behaviours such as masking. However, in Primary School, I felt very alone. I thought “Maybe I am not Autistic.” I was ostracised by the girls as I got on well with the boys and was more into sport than socialising. However, try as I might, I was not destined to fit in, and I am glad I didn’t succeed! I had a couple of amazing teachers and a particularly incredible and empowering integration aide that I am still in touch with today.
When I got to high school, things started to change. I met Autistic adults, all successful and all extremely different from one another. They spoke about their growing up years and then it clicked … We all had similar and relatable experiences. I finally felt like I was a part of something, my tribe. I used to feel like an actor in a play, who is constantly getting the script last, and is being updated so quickly that I cannot keep up with my lines. “Am I too Autistic, am I not Autistic enough?” Meeting fellow Autistics gave me closure and permission to start removing my mask and be myself.
Then there was the question of employment. My peers around me started getting jobs in cafes, supermarkets, and restaurant. I was concerned as even being a visitor in a café/restaurant is a difficult task and I thought there would be no way of working in such environments. As luck would have it, I decided to give a talk to my teachers to explain what Autism meant to me and how to support individuals in the classroom, as much of my issues resided beneath the surface; teachers simply did not pick up on when I was struggling. They found it so powerful and eye-opening, and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be an advocate. My entrepreneurship teacher attended and said that there was such a need for Autistic voice in the community and that I should make consulting and presenting my job. So with his help and guidance, I started my own business. This was one step closer to independence, and I felt proud of myself and what I achieved, which was much needed at that particular time in my life. It pushed me out of my comfort zone but also taught me that there are ways of creating a future for yourself, with an environment that is accommodating to your unique needs.
I look back and there is so much to be grateful for in the present, that I have been able to make peace with the past. I make it a practice in my life to turn each negative into a positive, or something that I can work on. For example, when I was bullied at a particular institution, I thought “Where is the understanding lacking? What can I do to help change this?”, and I presented on Autism. This mindset has helped me get through my obstacles, rather than get over them. And there are still hard times, yes – it is not realistic to always be positive, and I recognise that we all have our paths to cross – but I have developed strategies and tools to help me process these situations. It is possible. I also recognise that the hardships I may have faced such as being bullied or misunderstood, have made me so much more compassionate and open minded as a person. I want to help others understand Autism and Neurodiversity, and see others join me. I wish for Autistic individuals to feel empowered and have a life full of acceptance, understanding and support. I want them to love themselves and see their strengths.
This is why Autistic-led organisations such as Yellow Ladybugs and The I CAN Network are so important in enhancing the lives of Autistic individuals and helping them thrive. Providing social opportunities where we connect with likeminded people can be life-changing. If we all support each other, we recreate the village mentality, and help each other as a unified community. My mentees give me so much hope and happiness for the future – I already see children as young as eight making a positive difference, whether it is standing up for their rights, speaking out against injustices, or simply having the confidence and self-love to be completely themselves. I envision adults on the spectrum being supported by fellow Autistics who can empathise with their pathway, and positive allies that help us and listen to us. And, finally .…I look forward to a time where therapy work and mentoring for Autism is created and run by Autistic people. And this inspires me to continue, and excites me!
Thank you all for being here on my own unique journey, and I encourage you to tune into as many of our voices as possible. There are a lot of us out there, we are waiting for you. You just have to know where to look.
– Shadia Hancock, Autism Actually