Sometimes I feel like a chameleon. I change myself to match my environment. People tend to think I am loud and outgoing, but actually I am quiet a lot of the time, and I like my own company. I also love being social and having a laugh with others, but keep my circle of close friends small. People assume I’m clever, but I just think I’m hard-working (I can count the number of books I have read for leisure in the last five years on one hand!). I am relentlessly optimistic about things and am easily enthused. I gain my energy from people. People – their struggles and joys – inspire me.
I am fiercely loyal to the people and causes that matter to me, and will give them 110% of my focus. Whilst I am lucky with my memory and my attention to detail, it’s my focus that I think has been my key strength. When I want something to happen, I make it so. I carry it with me through every inch of the day until it is done. My closest friends and family will tell you that I ‘always have a project on the go’ and I’m always a little intense until the project is done! If I had to say I was ‘about’ anything, it would be impact. Doing things that have impact is my biggest driver. Autism to me means ‘projects’. My life has always been a series of projects and I’ve had a great time! The I CAN Network is the project I created based on the great mentors I had growing up.
When I was five, my diagnostic report highlighted everything ‘wrong’ with me, rather than everything unique about me. Any reader of the report would think, ‘bad luck, you’ve been sentenced to a kid with Autism, but our service is here for the difficulties ahead’. That report basically said I wouldn’t have the social connections and confidence I do now. My parents didn’t give it much weight. When I was in primary school, there were moments where people didn’t think I would pick up on their attitudes towards me. I picked up on everything! I had a teacher who made it very obvious that she didn’t think ‘I could handle things’ or that I was limited by my endless worrying. My brave friend and fellow student Erin pulled her up on it, but my most dangerous critic was myself. We all have an inner voice that says ‘I Can’t’ or ‘I CAN’. Because I moved so differently as a kid, I tended to listen to my ‘I Can’t’ voice. But it was my family, Erin, and the gutsy mentors I had in Bob, my grandfather, and Mrs Horvath, my Year 7 teacher, who got me speaking ‘I CAN’.
Everyone benefits when we're positive about Autism.
If I could say one thing to my 10-year-old self, it would be, “You’ve got guts Chris. Keep pushing yourself. Keep laughing at yourself. Keep listening to the people who make you feel good. Just be sure to also cut yourself some slack.”
Now, I never let a label limit what I am capable of. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to publicly connect myself with Autism because of the negative stigma. I remember the day: the 9th of July 2009. I was Youth Representative to the UN and I was giving a speech at the UN Youth Conference in Brisbane. I knew the delegates expected me to give a polished presentation on the values of global citizenship. It seemed so empowering to defy expectations and public prescriptions of Autism and come out and say ‘I am Autistic’. When I did, I was met with a mixed reaction. Some were compassionate and proud. Others whispered ‘how did he become Youth Rep?’ That whisper emboldened me to get out there and change the conversation.
Our schools, workplaces and broader society are senselessly missing out on people on the Autism Spectrum. Almost all people on the Autism Spectrum report having difficulty due to non-inclusive schooling environments. This is why we are underrepresented in university and excluded from the workforce. Empowering our unique and talented cohort of Australians on the Spectrum is the driving force behind the I CAN Network.
Autism is important for every person, every community and every country. The planet, in all its faces, desperately needs Autism. Autism helps shape minds that approach things and collect things differently. When we’re positive about it, we get the benefits, whether those benefits include helping us to be more open, or remembering important information, or pioneering a new way of seeing or doing something. Everyone benefits when we’re positive about Autism.