Nichole Conolly (She/They)
Nichole is a writer and educator, originally from Caloundra, QLD. She has a Masters in Autism from the University of Wollongong and a Certificate IV in Education Support from Australian Child Care Career Options. She spent much of their young adulthood working as a circus performer and instructor with Lorraine Ashton’s Classic Circus before moving to Brisbane to focus on their academic studies. They are an alumni of the Autism CRC Future Leaders Program and current member of QAGOMA’s Disability Reference Group. Nichole has spoken about autism at events and conferences throughout Australia, England, Singapore, and the USA. Nichole currently resides in Brisbane, QLD; working as an Education Support Officer in a Secondary School.
Starring in a Spy Thriller
Being autistic often feels like starring in a spy thriller. I play the role of the protagonist on a mission called life, constantly facing off against an opposing force called society. The driving force behind the plot is to do everything, at all costs, to hide my secret by learning to mimic other people and blend in. This causes intense internal pain, but I was always told that it was better if no one knew my little secret. Halfway through the movie, there was a plot twist. I decided to reveal my secret to the world, resulting in a chaotic, disguise-filled, masked battle complete with feats of great strength and action. The antagonist lurked in the shadows, and though the audience didn’t know who they were, there were plenty of guesses. There were a few moments of tension in my relationships, and there were explosions (though not in a literal sense).
Like most good movies, there were a few prequels and sequels, and we are about to enter number 37. Living authentically can be challenging. I used to think it meant living up to the standards that other people set and being what they thought autistic was. If I didn’t fit the very definition of what autism was in a medical model sense, then I felt like an imposter. But authenticity is a tight wire, a thin metal line between who you want to be and what the world thinks you should be. One side of the tight wire is autism, as described in the DSM; a deficit, inappropriate, difficult, restricted, and abnormal being. However, as the DSM itself acknowledges, that is a stereotypical view. From whose eyes am I viewed as abnormal and a deficit? Parallel to that side is the one that causes me anger and frustration, affecting my self-esteem.
Living on my Wire
Am I a broken image of what the world sees as right, or am I a very much alive, powerful version of what they see as wrong? My big toe dances with trepidation as it branches out, like a flower scared to bloom but not totally against it. I feel lighter when I can be the me I feel most at peace with. To stay on my wire, I need support that won’t move me to one side or the other, but instead, affords me what I need to stay on it. Just as I have the prerogative to wear glasses to see or utilising crutches to move around on an injured limb, I have the right to utilize tools that help me stay balanced on my wire.
Unfortunately, there is often an inadequacy surrounding others and their ability to allow me to use these tools. No one should be left stranded on the tight wire with one foot hanging off the side, and everyone deserves to have their necessities met, including those you can’t see. In the past, I have been instructed to mask because some parents don’t want to see an autistic adult, thinking that their child will grow out of their autism. But if the price of keeping me balanced on the tight wire is to change my style of walking, then I will refuse the offer.
Self-Advocacy – When things get wobbly
At my current workplace, the disequilibrium wobbling the wire consists of loud noises, flickering and fluorescent lighting, and tense relationships. When the disequilibrium develops, I become shaky and may even be thrown from the wire. To refocus and rebalance, some of the tools I utilize include wearing headphones, sunglasses inside the classroom, frequent movement, chewing of items, fidget tools, and stimming when and where there is a wish to, and removing myself from a situation or moment.
I feel safe in environments and with people who assist in the process of re-aligning myself to the task ahead. You may not notice the supports, but I can guarantee you that they are there. These are some of the many self-advocacy commitments I have made for myself:
- Checking in with people on a daily basis.
- Being open about my feelings with others.
- Asking to be removed from a lesson or class that contains highly triggering topics or discussions.
- Requesting the volume of music in a space to be turned down when it becomes overwhelming.
- Using a quiet room during lesson time as needed.
- Making use of a space to unwind, release tension, or cry when necessary.
- Creating solutions to problems as they arise.
Coming Full Circle
It feels like I’ve come full circle, as if I’m standing on the opposite platform from where I started. I can’t help but smile when I think back to the beginning of my journey. It’s a great feeling of pride to know that I’ve accomplished something, especially after experiencing some difficulties along the way. I’m the same person I was at the beginning of the movie, at the start of the tight-wire walking scene. But now, I am an authentically, publicly autistic, free person. I don’t wear any masks, disguises, or keep any secrets. Today, I am soaring.