Since Jolene Stockman revealed her autism diagnosis during a TEDx Talk last year, she has spoken to many organisations, parents and autistics. But talking at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference in Singapore was a big step up. She explains what it was like.
THE AUDIENCE at the Asia Pacific Autism conference (APAC) in Singapore was always going to be different to what I had previously experienced.
The culture around autism there is not as positive or supportive as it is in New Zealand.
In Singapore, autistic speakers are given the option of hiding their identity in case they are worried about the repercussions that identifying may have on their career, relationships, or social standing.
I weighed it up; I always want to inspire and educate the audience, but I wasn’t going to Singapore to try and sound like everyone else. I had been chosen for my voice and my perspective, even if it meant an unpleasant reaction to my speech. I was prepared for a potentially hostile crowd, resistant (if not adverse) to the idea of ‘celebrating’ autism.
So, I spoke at the conference, held in the Resorts World Convention Centre on Sentosa Island off the coast of Singapore, to my lived experience and shared concepts from my award-winning book for young adults, ‘Total Blueprint for World Domination.’
I told my story, and talked about autistic superpowers, the strengths and advantages. And you know what? The room was packed to overflowing. There were people in the aisles. They nodded, laughed, and they cried (in the good way!) And no one walked out!
Even though I knew I’d be okay however the audience reacted, it was still a huge relief that it went so well. I think it’s because truth resonates, and that we all relate to finding the magic in our kids and sharing it with the world. Even if that magic doesn’t look the way we thought it would.
“Our greatest human gifts are time and energy. What if we took all the energy, we’re spending trying to get our autistic kids to eat food that touches, look us in the eye, and pretzel themselves to fit into the current world, and spent it supporting them to find peace, to find passion, and to create the new world?” – Jolene Stockman APAC19.
For the first time in its 10-year history, the APAC19 conference included autistic speakers. And for the first time the conference organising committee (which included autistic researcher and multi-art practitioner Dr Dawn-Joy Leong) put strategies and options in place to soften the sensory overload and support autistic delegates.
- A chill-out room that provided a quiet-zone, low light, and sensory objects for peaceful time out.
- A social space for autistics to network and have meals away from the crowds.
- Social interaction stickers – available to stick on your lanyard, letting people know if you were green (happy to speak to anyone), blue (okay to speak to people you know), or red (not wanting to talk). Imagine these in workplaces!
- Volunteer hosts (in purple shirts) everywhere: happy to smile, support, provide information, or help with anything you could think of.
The conference wasn’t perfect; while the hand dryers in the restrooms were turned off (epic move APAC19 organisers!) they were labelled with an apology for the inconvenience. Autistic supports are ideals, not inconveniences.
There were still plenty of the old myths floating around, disrespectful language use in spite of the guidelines provided (identifying autistics as people who “suffer from” or “live with” autism), and lots of cringy moments for autistic delegates listening to presenters who may have forgotten we were in the room.
But overall? Huge progress. Workshops and presentations on employment, wellbeing, mental health, digital technologies, relationships, and education. Autistic voices invited and heard alongside world-renowned doctors and guests.
I’m excited about the future of autism, not only for the things I learned in Singapore, but for the new appreciation I have for the progressive attitudes and people working together in New Zealand. I’m humbled and honoured to be able to speak and share in this space. I’ve connected with some incredible people in Singapore and I’m excited to develop these relationships moving forward.
Ngā mihi nui ki Altogether Autism, Autism Connex, and the Department of Internal Affairs Lotteries Commission, for your support and for the funding that made this possible. And thank you to Pathlight Singapore for the photos. I am so honoured and appreciative.
Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou i tō tēnēi taonga mīharo.
- Jolene Stockman is a multi award-winning Taranaki writer and tangata whaitakiwātanga (an autistic person).
- Since her adult diagnosis and TEDx Talk, Jolene has become a trustee for innovative not-for-profit Autism Connex and is excited to raise understanding and optimism around autism.
- The Asia Pacific Autism Conference brings together members of the international autism community to witness and discuss progress made internationally in the autism space.
- For more about Jolene and the conference, visit www.jolenestockman.com
- This article first appeared in Altogether Autism Journal, Issue 3, 2019.