Anyone who knows Terry Pratchett’s alternate multiverse will see that the subtitle of this post is a little tongue in cheek (and for those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mr Pratchett’s wonderful characters in his many books, I will explain that ‘what I did on my holidays’ is the title of a book by the Discworld’s first tourist, TwoFlower, which almost causes a revolution due to its depiction of a world vastly different to the of TwoFlower’s home country, the Agatean Empire.) OK, nerd points racked up so here i go…
Late last year I was asked to deliver a seminar presentation along wth three other speakers at Griffith University. I happily agreed to do this. Griffith University is in that wonderful subtropical city with many bridges and curly streets, Brisbane. I realised that someone I had recently reconnected with was researching at Bond University which is on the Gold Coast. My sense of geography is appalling at the best of times and I assumed – given how close the two places are to one another on the map – that the Gold Coast was a ten minute drive form Brisbane (I got lost in my own house once as a kid so this is on the minor end of the ‘Jeanette’s crimes against geography’ scale). I should give some background about the friend at Bond University. The friend is professor Vicki Bitsika, head of the Autism Centre at Bond Uni. I met Vicki when I was twenty. She came to visit me and I think we were both quite wary of one another. I was a prisoner and Vicki was a psychologist who was one of a handful of clinicians at the time who knew about this thing I had never heard of before called Asperger syndrome. Vicki got me to answer lots of questions and decipher cartoons with no words which I can still feel my sense of deep frustration I puzzled over this seemingly impossible task. Vicki gave me a diagnosis. I regret to say I gave her an evil stare and a lot of attitude. My parents paid for me to see Vicki. I think I may have gone to three appointments. I hated that Autism label as I thought it condemned me to living out all the insults and taunts that bullies had applied to me all through high school. I wasn’t about to accept that!
Of course anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am now very happy with my ‘A’ word and identify very strongly as a proud Autistic woman and encourage others to embrace their unique Autistic ‘them-ness.’ My former psychologist Vicki and I have been working independently as Autism professionals for some years but we only connected recently, I suppose psychologists probably aren’t supposed to go and seek out their former clients. There is probably a rule about that somewhere. I saw Vicki’s name in a couple of places and it piqued my interest. Then last year I saw that I was presenting at the same conference as Vicki. I got in touch and she was really happy to catch up with me. We have been in touch ever since. Vicki is one of the most significant people in my life. She is also a great and very generous person.
When I got the details of my Griffith Uni talk sorted out, I suggested to Vicki that maybe I could visit her for lunch on the day before the seminar at Griffith, This turned into an gala dinner with all the senior academics, sponsors of the university and the Vice Chancellor. “Cool!’ I thought (I am a bit of a fiend at networking and was looking forward to introducing myself to influential people and making sure they all got at least one Jeanette business card). Given this generous offer of dinner and potential networking, I offered to give a talk as well. The talk went well and the dinner was amazing. It was ironic to be a guest at a schmooze-fest dinner at Bond university as Bond is a privately-run university, reliant on students’ fees, sponsorship and and donations. My teenage socialist self spent most of the past month yelling rude words at me at this betrayal of my 16 year old need to turn the world upside down. Thankfully my current self favours ‘gentle power’ and using influence and education to change things. Not a lot of revolution happens atWhimsy Manor but a lot of support and friendship and mentoring and gently calling people on their unhelpful beliefs and showing them a better way – that is my preferred method of making change.
The morning after my Bond Uni visit, I had breakfast with Vicki at a little French patisserie. I then had a chauffeur driven car collect me and take me the hour and a half to Brisbane from the Gold Coast. I listened to music on my phone and enjoyed seeing the driver doing something he plainly enjoyed. I was in good time for my presentation and enjoyed listening to the end of the first speaker’s talk.
There was another Autism advocate who is also a psychologist and PhD candidate presenting at the Griffith talk. I felt so supported and was pleased that we could both respond to questions from our respective Autistic perspectives. At one point, someone asked me a question about a topic my colleague was better equipped to answer. I started to answer it and then realised that a much greater expert then me in that area was sitting right next to me. I happily threw the question to her, appreciating her presence. I reflected that things are changing. When I started out doing public speaking around Autism in 2005, an Autistic keynote speaker was pretty much unheard of. The focus was always on deficits. Yet yesterday a room full of clinicians and parents of Autistic kids carefully took notes when my colleague, Jacky, and I spoke about neurodiversity and why we are against the sorts of therapies which aim to make Autistic kids seem ‘less Autistic’.
I had a great day presenting and meeting new people and selling books and things. I got a lift to the airport with two of the other speakers who were on an earlier flight. I bought some impressively unhealthy dinner at the airport and then found the gate I needed to be at. I got some odd looks from the other people as I was wearing my rainbow neurodiversity infinity symbol T-shirt with the symbol made up of pictures of cats and my wonderfully lurid blue and pink tie-die shoes. Apparently forty-something women aren’t supposed to dress like that. I happily reflected that I am me, just as I am and will never let some narrow ‘rules’ of fashion and age dictate how I present myself to the world. I smiled as I realised I was someone that many people would discount on first look – overweight, middle-aged and female, dressed in wacky and colourful clothes ad shoes and doing unexpected things with my body language and eye contact. All those have never seen me on stage, they have never seen my awards around leadership and volunteering, They have never read my books, blogs or articles or received strategies and tips form me but I sit confident in the knowledge of my work and my community.
As is so often the case, a trip to give presentations on Autism results in me feeling bigger and better than before, carrying within me the knowledge that I and my advocate and ally colleagues are doing our bit to change the world. I love being involved in the ongoing revolution and rethinking around Autism. We still have quite a long way to go but we are further along the path to a better world.