For Courtney Ryan, a young woman living with autism, Autism Awareness Month brings a sense of empowerment and the hope for more inclusion and equality throughout the community. ‘We are still people who want to be treated equally,’ she says.
This month offers the perfect opportunity for those who are unfamiliar with autism and other disabilities to put themselves in an uncomfortable position and start a conversation.
STEPS Pathways College training manager Karen Caldwell said simply starting a conversation with someone is one of the best ways to raise awareness around the topic.
‘What I see is people seem scared to talk to someone who has a disability of any sort. They don’t want to offend so they don’t start a conversation,’ Mrs Caldwell said.
‘Starting a conversation about autism is the same as talking about mental health or any other disability, it’s about making yourself vulnerable enough and living in the space of being uncomfortable. Just go up, say hello and listen to them.’
Making a difference
Mrs Caldwell said the simple act of listening and showing you care can make a tremendous difference, especially for someone who feels like they may not fit in.
‘When you get our students to talk about themselves, they come alive,’ she said.
‘Getting that network of friends who like them just the way they are is so important and when you come to the college you get to see that although everybody’s unique, we’re all a team. We all count on each other, and we all work together.’
And it’s that team spirit that makes STEPS Pathways College feel like home for so many of the students who take the enormous leap out of their comfort zones when enrolling in the course.
It doesn’t take long for the students to start feeling more comfortable however, with the unique college environment offering a rare opportunity for the young adults to truly be themselves.
‘Pathways is all about showing our students that there are ways we all need to behave to be able to operate in society, but we also teach our students that you don’t have to be anybody other than who you are,’ said Mrs Caldwell.
‘Students learn the essential skills that they need to keep themselves healthy and safe and we also equip them with the skills that they need to be able to socialise with the rest of the world.’
For Courtney, she’ll be using her skills to secure a position in business administration after she graduates… that is when she’s not kicking butt in martial arts during her down time, having just obtained her purple belt.
‘My hope is that I’ll be treated the same as others when I start looking for a job,’ said Karen Caldwell.
Autism Awareness Month runs across the entire month of April and aims to improve the lives of people living on the spectrum by providing helpful resources and raising awareness around the topic.