Australia's first holistic leadership capacity building program for adults on the autism spectrum is well underway, with 14 autistic adults (pictured left) coming together for a three-day residential workshop to develop their leadership and community advocacy skills.
The residential workshop is a critical part of the comprehensive training and development program, which also includes online training modules, volunteer placements, and mentoring from established autistic leaders. Run by Autism CRC, the program has been co-designed and developed by autistic adults, for autistic adults.
This Autistic Pride Day, four of our Future Leaders reflect on what autistic pride means to them and what they hope to achieve through the Future Leaders Program.
Melanie Heyworth is 39 and based in Sydney, New South Wales.
"So often as a society we are instructed to view autism through a lens of deficits and pathology, to see only the challenges and the tragedy. Autistic pride is our chance to disrupt this rhetoric and change the narrative to one of celebration," Melanie says.
"Autistic pride gives us the opportunity to speak freely of the joys and the beauty and the strength and the gifts in autism. It gives us a moment to indulge who we are in its intense and passionate delight. So often we judge people on their contributions to society. Often Autistics are criticised and ostracised because our contributions to society are difficult to measure, or at least are not conventional. Autistic pride reminds us to be proud of autism because it is who we are, both beautiful and valuable as we are," she says.
"This message of pride is exactly the one I want to amplify through participating in the Future Leaders Program. I want to encourage our autistic community to flourish as it embraces its autistic identity. My specific passion is in helping non-autistic parents of autistic children to accept, respect, and embrace their child’s autism, and to eschew the toxic narrative of “autism as tragedy”.
"I want to reframe parents’ perceptions of autism so that they can see the hope, optimism, and beauty inherent in their child’s autistic identity. My dream is that we raise autistic children who understand their neurodivergence through a strengths-based, optimistic, and authentically autistic lens," Melanie says.
Dylan Totos, aged 25 and based in Adelaide, South Australia, shares his thoughts about autistic pride and the Future Leaders Program.
"Autistic Pride, to me, means being proud of people's differences, both my own and others. It means to take someone as they are, not as you want them to be. It's fantastic that we are starting to break the mould and evolve in our own way," Dylan says.
"Through the Future Leaders Program, I am hoping to meet people who think like myself or outside the box and find a place to belong. I'm hoping to get a sense of how a different leadership approach can be beneficial and utilise the benefits that come with my autism. Improving my ability to advocate for not only others but myself as well is hugely important and something I am hoping to improve upon in the Future Leaders Program," Dylan says.
Liam Dow-Hall is 28 and based in Fremantle, Western Australia.
"Some people see autism as a bad thing, but for me it’s a good thing. Because I identify as being Autistic, I’ve been able to get help from people who understand autism throughout my life. I have a sense of belonging especially since the Future Leaders program. I’ve become more aware of how many talented people there are on the spectrum," Liam says.
"I’m proud of what I’ve achieved because of my autism and also in spite of my autism. I don’t take things for granted, for example, having friends, having a job, getting a driver’s licence. I’ve worked hard to achieve these things and I appreciate them more," he says.
"I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, all of which I was well qualified for and I was interviewed several times. I believe that I didn’t get the jobs because the employers didn’t understand autism. I’d like employers to be more aware of autism, understand what it is and what it isn’t.
"There are lots of adjustments which are easy to make and allow people on the spectrum to be more productive in the workforce. I think there are advantages of having people on the spectrum in the workplace. We’re loyal, honest, punctual and we notice detail that other people miss. That’s what I would like to achieve through the Future Leaders program. On a personal level, I’m hoping to get more confident in public speaking and communicating in general," Liam says.
Mathew is 27 and based in Brisbane, Queensland.
"Autistic pride is about accepting myself and my differences amongst my peers. Being proud of myself, knowing who I am, and my accompanying achievements and passions. 'Pride' is about letting others know they need to accept us in reflection of us accepting ourselves. For instance I am good at organising and being punctual in my own work. This may be a good opportunity for neuro-typical people to learn from me how to do that. That is autistic pride," Mathew says.
"I hope the Future Leaders Program will help me to build my networks for my environmental passions as well as disability advocacy, improving inclusion and accessibility of our communities. Building confidence and motivation is all part of the program, as well as pursuing passions and talent through leadership. My biggest hope is to be employable and connect with new people," he says.
“Autism CRC’s vision is to see autistic people empowered to discover and use their diverse strengths and interests. Our Future Leaders Program is designed to assist participants to become leaders in their communities, and it's an absolute honour to be part of their journeys," said Andrew Davis, CEO of Autism CRC.
"To stay updated on our Future Leaders' experiences and hear about future versions of the program, follow Autism CRC on social media or visit our website," Andrew said.
For more information about the program, visit Future Leader Program overview.