As the South Australian Government leads the way in creating an Autism-friendly place to live, learn and work, we talk to a South Australian with Autism about her unique experience in education and the workplace.
But before we get to that, here’s some handy background info.
What is Autism?
Autism, diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurological developmental difference that changes the way an individual relates to the environment and people in it. Autism impacts the way an individual sees, experiences and understands the world. People with this diagnosis use a number of terms to refer to themselves; neurodivergent, autistic, on the spectrum.
Every individual’s lived experience of Autism is different, which is why the term ‘spectrum’ is used.
Autistic people may have outstanding skills in certain areas, while finding other aspects of life particularly challenging. How skills develop across a lifespan varies as much as Autism itself and can differ significantly from person to person.
And how does Autism affect South Australians?
More than 200,000 Australians are Autistic, and one in four Australians have an Autistic family member.
Autism is the largest primary disability group in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), with more than 40 per cent of South Australian NDIS participants having Autism as their primary diagnosis.
More than half of all Autistic people experience poor mental health, with a suicide rate nine times that of the general population.
Autistic people are half as likely to complete year 10 than the general population, and three times more likely to be unemployed than other people with disability. However, none of these statistics are directly caused by autism, but more by being autistic in a world that is made for neurotypical people.
What is the SA Government doing for Autistic people?
In a national first, the State Government has already appointed an Assistant Minister for Autism, Emily Bourke, and established an Office for Autism. Autistic educator and advocate Dr. Emma Goodall is the inaugural director of the office, ensuring the Autistic community is represented.
Assistant Minister Bourke and Dr. Goodall will lead the effort to improve outcomes for Autistic and Autism communities across the lifespan in South Australia. The State Government with the help of the Office for Autism and the Department for Human Services are working with Autistic and autism communities to co-design the state’s first Autism Strategy and Autism Inclusion Charter.
As well as this, the State Government has appointed an Autism inclusion teacher in every public primary school to support Autistic children and young people to have the best start to their schooling.
The Office for Autism has just launched a new website with up-to-date, jurisdiction specific info to support SA’s Autistic and autism communities through an autism diagnosis and beyond, plus provide opportunities for the non-Autistic community to build knowledge and understanding. It also launched the ‘Autism Works’ campaign in late October, which encourages people to explore ways to be more inclusive for Autistic and autism communities in the workplace.
The website includes resources and downloadable guides to help employers make their workplace more inclusive for Autistic people, and to support Autistic employees gain the strategies to request reasonable changes to set themselves up for success in employment.
It’s all part of the government-led effort to create a more inclusive and knowledgeable society where Autistic people can meaningfully participate in every aspect of community life.
Meet Deanna Wallis – who is so much more than her Autism diagnosis
Proud South Australian Deanna Wallis is 28 years old and has just been promoted to Community Relations Director at Wallis Cinemas. She’s also Director of Interiors By Harper, through which she channels her passion for interior design and expresses her creative spirit.
She was officially diagnosed with Autism and ADHD in October last year, but says she’s known for a long time she was Autistic.
She says the support to get diagnosed earlier just wasn’t there. “It wasn’t something that was even raised as a possibility when I was at school, but I always had this deep feeling with things that I was experiencing at school and in life that I was Autistic,” she says.
What Autism means for Deanna
Every person experiences Autism differently. Deanna sees her Autism more as a superpower than a disability but other people can find it hard to understand. “I find my Autism in terms of creativity, attention to detail, compassion and empathy for others,” she says. Combined with her ADHD, it’s “a blessing and a curse”.
“I get hyper-fixated on things, which can sometimes be a little bit annoying for me and other people because I’m like, ‘I need to focus on that and I need to do that even if that means being up all hours of the night, that’s what I need to do’.”
She says going out for meals can be very challenging because she has “a real issue with textures and sensations and spices and herbs” – and “people can find that annoying”.
According to Deanna, one of the most common things people say to her when they hear she’s Autistic is that she doesn’t look like she is: “I always say that it’s not based on looks, it’s based on instinct. Our eccentricities are our superpowers. So I guess the moral of my story is never judge a book by its cover.”
Autism in the workplace
Deanna says that while it’s important to focus on the needs of Autistic children, people shouldn’t forget that Autistic kids turn into Autistic adults – and those adults are able to deliver in the workplace in ways that other people sometimes can’t.
“I think that Autistic people are so incredibly capable, and that we are able to see things from a different point of view,” she says. “We deserve a seat at the table. We deserve to not be pushed aside and overlooked just because we might do things a little bit differently and we might need help in certain scenarios. I think that difference is really awesome and cool and I wish that people could see that. It’s not something to be shoved to the side and stigmatised.”
She says it’s also important that Autistic people aren’t defined by their diagnosis. “Yes, I have Autism. But I am also Deanna, and I’m so capable of thriving in the senior leadership position which I am doing now,” she says. “So I am more than just the health conditions or disabilities.”
Want more? Matt, Anna and Tim are joined by Maggie Rutjens, who received an autism diagnosis later in life. Listen to the full episode:
Making the workplace Autism-friendly
Deanna says adapting the recruitment process to make it more flexible is important to make sure Autistic people can get their foot in the door.
“Going for interviews or group interviews could be very overwhelming because I have severe social anxiety because of my Autism, and I know others do as well,” she says.
“Implementing sensory safe spaces is also very important. Even for non-Autistic people who have a little bit of anxiety, when you feel overwhelmed, sometimes you just want to go to a quiet room and just decompress, but it’s extra important for an Autistic person.”
The way forward
Once recruitment processes are more inclusive, it is important to ensure the workplace is also inclusive. The Office for Autism has free resources to support employers with easy to implement adjustments to support neurodivergent and other employees.
“I think ever since [SA] became the first state to have an Office for Autism and an Assistant Minister for Autism, there obviously has been a bigger push in government on inclusivity for the Autistic…,” says Deanna.
“People are starting to open their eyes which is amazing. Obviously, we’ve still got a long way to go but I love that there’s attention on it and I think if that grows then our communities can only get more inclusive and amazing.
“When we do celebrate diversity in our community, it is so special. Everyone’s different thing is what makes the community so awesome and unique. Everyone is capable of contributing and thriving, so I think it’s really lovely to see the attention on it because it deserves it for sure.”
Find more information about Autism, available support and diagnosis here.