In this eleventh episode Ginny Grant begins by introducing the show and providing context about herself and Reframing Autism. Ginny then introduces Shadia Hancock, who is a young Australian Autistic advocate.
In the conversation, Shadia reflects on their Autism journey after learning of their Autistic identity at eight years of age. Shadia explains that they were connected in with older Autistic mentors early in their journey, which helped to foster a positive sense of identity. Shadia discusses their initial steps in advocacy, beginning with a presentation to their teachers about their Autistic identity, their differences and needs. They also reflect on their experience of travelling to Singapore for the Asia Pacific Autism Conference in 2019, which was a proud achievement for them. Shadia explores their experience of studying Speech Pathology at university, including some of the barriers they have faced and their tips for new Autistic students. Finally, they discuss their future career aspirations, including doing further research into supporting AAC users and providing animal-assisted therapy through their practice.
Ginny: Hello and welcome to this episode of Amplified: Autistics in Conversation with Reframing Autism.
I’m Ginny Grant, an Autistic advocate, a writer, and Reframing Autism’s Communications Manager, and I am the host of this podcast. Today I’m thrilled to be chatting with young Autistic advocate, Shadia Hancock.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which I’m recording this podcast today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Reframing Autism extends our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
For those of you who are new to this podcast series, Reframing Autism is an Australian-based not-for-profit organisation which is run by and for Autistic people and their families and allies. It is dedicated to creating a world in which the Autistic community is supported to achieve acceptance, inclusion and active citizenship. And we are all about nurturing and celebrating Autistic identity.
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Welcome to Amplified, Shadia! Would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?
Shadia: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much Reframing Autism for having me. I love your podcast. I’m an Autistic Speech Pathology student. I’m currently in my Bachelor degree. I am twenty-one years of age and I am very interested in Autism advocacy. Animals are a big interest area of mine, and I’m very keen on merging my love of animals with therapy work, such as animal-assisted therapy, and increasingly interested in following the research surrounding alternative and augmentative communication or AAC and language development in neurodivergent people.
Ginny: Great, thanks for that, Shadia. So, let’s start with your Autism journey. Could you tell us a bit about when and how you learned you are Autistic?
Shadia: I kind of figured it out at about the age of eight. I went to a primary school where there was quite a few neurodivergent students, so most of my friends were neurodivergent and we had an IT club specifically set up for us to hang out and socialise, which was wonderful because I really didn’t like the playground settings, particularly as I got older. And I think I remember seeing a poster that said “Autism” or “meltdowns” and the word just stuck in my head and I went home to my mother and asked her, “Are my friends Autistic?” and she said yes, and then I connected the dots and asked, “Am I Autistic?” And so I guess from there we had very open discussions about what it meant to be Autistic and … and we shared resources and books and I was connected in with mentors who were Autistic as well, so really fostered this sense of a positive identity and that really helped me a lot when I got to high school.
Ginny: That’s wonderful. How have you connected with the Autistic community?
Shadia: Um, my mum’s been a huge part of helping me actually, through facilitating connections within the Autistic community, particularly when I was younger. So when I was thirteen years of age, I actually connected with some of the fantastic people from the I CAN Network and some of the researchers who are now working in Aspect and those sorts of organisations. And they really helped me realise that I wasn’t alone. At the time I was being bullied a lot and so it was really difficult for me to think that … I was sort of not deficient. But then, seeing these older adults talk openly about what being Autistic is like for them and seeing how they’ve made it a huge part of their advocacy made me realise that there’s a whole community waiting for me out there and that I am not alone. And so that was really important for my self-esteem growing up and realising that I’m not deficient; I’m just different.
Ginny: So, how did your interest in Autistic advocacy develop?
Shadia: Um, I greatly admired my Autistic mentors, a lot of whom … a few of them I still connect with today, which is very lovely. And they really encouraged me down the path of advocacy, and it started in small steps. So, my mother asked me at some stage when I was having some issues within the classroom to write a letter to my teachers explaining to me why that was an issue for me and what sort of things might help. And I ended up writing this quite detailed profile of myself explaining who I was and what Autism means to me. And afterwards I got requests from teachers to hear more about my experiences and some of my teachers were coming up to me saying, “I had no idea that all of these things were happening for you and now I understand a lot more”. And so my mum and I and a friend of mine, who was also a speaker at the time, we presented to my school teachers on Autism, and … and after that my Entrepreneurship teacher came up to me and said, “I think you can turn this into a business. I think you can advocate and spread the word to more schools and organisations, and it’s really grown from there and I’m so grateful to be able to connect with so many advocates across the world from a … wide variety of diversities and I’m just learning so much and having … being connected with organisations like Reframing Autism has been a really huge part of my advocacy journey and I’m very grateful.
Ginny: I love that! So, in terms of the advocacy work that you have done – I know you’ve done quite a lot – what are you most proud of?
Shadia: That’s a tough one! I’m very proud of a lot of work I’ve done. I guess my biggest milestone was being able to travel to Singapore to present at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference in 2019. As many of our Autistic audience members know, for many of us, travel is a really, really difficult thing and the last time I travelled overseas was when I was eight years of age. So there was quite a lot of planning involved and um … so it wasn’t even just speaking there, it was actually being able to accomplish going to a conference. And I met a lot of advocates and reconnected with many Autistic advocates that I’d been following over the years and, you know, just being able to present on my biggest passions was a great privilege, and it was just … it really helped with my own confidence and just made me really excited about the future that we’re now looking at international collaboration opportunities.
Ginny: What do you hope to accomplish through your advocacy work?
Shadia: I’m hoping that through talking about my own experiences, and I try my best as well to amplify the voices of other Autistic people from different intersectionalities and communication styles. I really want to get across that we … Autism is such a diverse difference and the best thing that you can do to learn about Autism is to listen to Autistic people, and so I’m very passionate about amplifying the importance of Autistic voice within allied health, within education and across the board. And I’m hoping that being able to become a speech pathologist and merge these … my lived experience with professional experience, that this will create opportunities to start more discussions around this. So I tend to … I just love learning a lot from other Autistic people. I listened to Damon’s podcast and absolutely loved hearing from him, and I think being part of the community is the big, big sort of emphasis here because we … we’re all in this together, and I think that’s really important that we all try our best to support each other in … in awareness building. So I’m hoping that will help, you know … even if it helps just one Autistic person out there know that they’re not alone and that there are people like them out there and that you will find your people, your network, and I … I have, so …
Ginny: Yeah, absolutely. So, you mentioned that you’re currently undertaking a degree in Speech Pathology. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve navigated your studies so far, including any barriers that you might have faced?
Shadia: So I did a lot of research prior to studying, mainly around what disability supports were provided in the different courses that I was considering as well as the particular institutions that I was studying at. So that started at around Year 10, so I went to a lot of campuses and then open days and spoke to the coordinators who ran those courses. And so there was a lot of pre-planning involved. And I think that this helped a lot with being able to prepare before uni started, like being able to develop an Education Inclusion Plan that clearly stated what supports I would require. And … not just things like extensions but even the fact that I need to take breaks in class, that I might be using stim toys or other things to be able to regulate myself and noise-cancelling headphones. So I guess from that perspective it’s been really helpful and I do feel that … my strength with being able to analyse and research to a high amount of detail has been an asset in this course, particularly as it’s tied into many of my interests. I guess some of the barriers I’ve faced – I think a lot of Autistic people will relate to – is group work, specifically group presentations and group studies. I find it very difficult to be able to relate to people I don’t know very well, particularly if our communication styles are different and even what our priorities are for the … for the task at hand, and this has been a frustrating aspect of my education ever since primary school. So, um, I think at times it’s been a bit of a … a difficulty in disclosing, you know, the fact that I do experience barriers with this but that I still want to collaborate with people. It’s just that my different communication style means that there will need to be adjustments made, so whether that’s just pair work as opposed to group work or being able to preassign groups, for example. Those have all been helpful things, and being able to do individual study where necessary. I think another thing that I’ve found very interesting is the whole process of disclosure, because research has also shown that many of us Autistic tertiary students don’t disclose our diagnosis. On the one hand, I think it can be really helpful for lecturers to know, you know, that you do have a disability and that you do require certain supports, but then, on the other hand, it also relies on the knowledge and understanding of the person who you disclose to and I’ve definitely had mixed experiences with that. So I think it’s really enlightened me about how we can possibly make educational institutions more accessible for Autistic students and I’m hoping that we can have more conversations about these issues going forward, particularly given the high numbers of school issues in young Autistic people and the fact that many of us don’t go on to tertiary education or further education.
Ginny: Do you have any advice for young Autistic people who are considering tertiary studies?
Shadia: I think one of the biggest priorities for me when I was looking is what their disability advisory options were, how much they had supports put in place for those sorts of issues. Being able to visit campus I think was really important, getting to know the environment and where you’d be studying. For me, being able to choose a smaller campus was really helpful because I find it very difficult to remember where to go, and if I was on a big campus I was very worried that I’d lose track of things, so having a structured, small campus was really important and also I think being able to consider what study load you’d like so some courses do offer part-time loads. And I think that’s a good … good discussion to have early on in the piece. And even being able to sit in on a few classes even prior to studying there, seeing what the lecturers are like … you know, the way that they are presenting information and having a very clear picture of whether that course is going to be the right fit for you. Another thing I found really helpful is connecting in with either current Autistic students and alumni and researchers who might be at university who are Autistic. I know that there are some very exciting developments where Autistic researchers are now developing neurodiversity projects within the universities and focus groups, for example, to help increase accessibility and understanding of Autism, so I’d be really trying to find those connections and even trying to find a mentor within the field or in the career that you wish to go into, so, for example, I’ve got a mentor in Speech Pathology and a community of Autistic speech pathologists that I keep in touch with. So just learn about their experiences and they’ve been there and done that so they can help me as a student navigating as well.
Ginny: That’s really great advice. Can you tell us a bit about your future career aspirations?
Shadia: Well, I’m hoping to be able to go into further research and possibly do a PhD. I’m very interested in language development, specifically … it’s very interesting given that Gestalt language development is now seen as a normal part of language development in not only Autistic and neurodivergent people but all … all learners, and it is something that I don’t think is focused on enough in, you know, Speech Pathology courses. And so I’m really interested in how that might interact, for example, with AAC and you know, AAC devices and … and systems. So I am very interested in researching, you know, ways of supporting AAC learners as well as, you know, listening to non-speaking advocates like Tim Chan, for example – I’m grateful to know him. It’s made me realise that there seems to be a large motor component that comes along with AAC users and nonspeaking people, and I think this is an area of research that really needs a bit more of a focus on. And of course, merging my love of animals through animal-assisted therapy, so I’m hoping eventually to have canine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted therapy offered through my Speech Pathology services. So that’s sort of where I’m hoping to go. Lots of ideas there and yeah, I’m very excited for the future. There’s some very … The neurodiversity movement’s really taking off now and it’s, you know, really wonderful to see how much things seem to be changing, even within the space of a few years.
Ginny: Thank you so much, Shadia. And thanks to our audience for listening to this episode of Amplified. Please listen in next time.
If you’re not already part of our social media communities, please join us online. You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. We also have a website – www.reframingautism.org.au – which has a treasure trove of Autistic-created resources. Thank you!