A few weeks ago I logged on to my laptop and saw an email from an unknown person. The subject line said ‘letter for award’. Given that I wasn’t a finalist for any awards I was a little intrigued. I opened it and found out that Toastmasters District 70 was awarding me with a Communication and Leadership award. The District 70 Director selected me for the award after seeing me give a talk a few years ago and then doing some Googling….and there does tend to be quite a lot of me on the internet at the moment!
The awards ceremony was in Western Sydney. It seemed such an interesting experience to receive an award from an organisation I only knew of peripherally and to to have a night out – a proper adventure I thought, so I agreed to go along. I was asked to give a thirty minute presentation on my life story.
I reflected that the weekend prior I had been in Melbourne at a peer research workshop for the Autism Cooperative Research Centre with predominantly autistic attendees. It was ‘Autistic space’ and quite wonderful. I could be exactly myself as could everyone else. I thought that the Toastmasters awards night dinner might be the opposite of this – a scary notion of ‘neurotypical space plus one Autistic’. Plus I didn’t know anyone who would be there. Even the person who gave me the award was someone who knew me from being in the audience at one of my talks and not someone I knew well.
I got the bus to Sydney and a cab to the venue. It was one of those huge rugby league clubs in suburban Sydney. I signed in as a guest and found the function room the dinner was in. I introduced myself to the woman outside the room. ’Hi I’m Jeanette, the guest speaker.’ She advised me matter of factly that they were setting up and I should wait outside. I was a little surprised but figured I wouldn’t be a lot of help in setting up the room! Soon afterwards two of the other people attending the event turned up. I got a very warm hello and conversation. Then the incoming district Director turned up and introduced himself and said how much he was looking forward to my talk. The woman who selected me for the award arrived and we went and got coffee, only to be met by two of the other Toastmasters. I’m not sure what demographic I had expected to be there but I was surprised by the diversity the group. It was very friendly and everyone knew each other. I felt like I had been welcomed to someone’s family dinner. In fact I have never been in a friendlier room full of complete strangers. The sound people miking me up were lovely and one of them was a woman and there was a curtain so that I could maintain my dignity – such as it is – when dropping the battery pack for the mic down my top and attaching it to my belt.
I was actually nervous about giving my talk. Not so much around talking to a room full of people – I do that all the time. I was anxious about the content of my talk. This often happens when I do the life story talk with non-Autism world people. What if they all just judged me and gave me evil looks and didn’t talk to me afterwards because of my poor choices and abject lifestyle in my twenties? Then I remembered that the main value of my story is how what I do now exists in relation to my difficult past. After my talk I got lots of compliments including from someone staying at the same hotel as me who told me how good my speech was as I ate breakfast! Mine was certainly not the only award as most of the people in the room got awards for their good work as leaders in the organisation. I am very happy I decided to go to Sydney, collect an award and meet some warm, inviting people.
But this is not just a nice story about me getting an award and meeting lovely people. I think the key point of interest in this story is the idea of Autistic advocates and individuals engaging with a mostly non-autistic audience and one which has little experience or understanding around Autism. I’ll have a go at unpacking them. Here goes…
- Speaking to audiences who know very little about Autism makes me feel wonderful because I am spreading the word and introducing them to my own Autistic reality and broader Autistic experience and thinking around neurodiversity which may well dispel or challenge stereotypes and assumptions. I think that is quite a worthwhile thing do, even if it can be little bit nerve wracking!
- As Autistics we can expect non-autistic people to all be judgmental or hostile. This can mean we approach new situations with this thinking. Many of have experienced bullying and bigotry so this is understandable. But it is not always the intention of others to be hostile or rude, and ignorance – which can be often be addressed without too much effort – can be confused with outright bigotry.
- I do speak at quite a few non-autism world events, It is challenging as many people have some unhelpful thinking but the beauty of me speaking in these forums is that I can start to address that unhelpful thinking. I would much rather people listen to me or another Autistic person talking about Autism than someone who shares their unhelpful thinking, This does mean I often feel like I am ‘taking one for the team’ but it also allows me the opportunity to support people to change their thinking or see the world in a more inclusive way.
- Outward hostility from non-autistic people at events is unusual in my experience. Often what happens is that someone comes out with some offensive statement and understandably I get annoyed and respond in the heat of the moment. This usually means I ‘lose’ that person and have no chance of engaging them in the future. If a person’s statements were from hostility and bigotry, anger is definitely warranted, but what if they were simply ignorant and repeating the views of their parents etc? I know autistic people who are ableist against themselves because of internalising societal and parental ableism. Sometimes thinking and attitudes are more complex than they first seem.