The Good Life: Max
As a small child, I was unapologetically Autistic. I flapped, galloped, and made noises to my heart’s content. Little kids are allowed to do that. As I grew older though, it became seen as less acceptable. I was increasingly in trouble at school, told to sit down, to stop moving, to be quiet.
I started to notice this indescribable sense of difference between myself and my peers, but I could never quite figure out what it was that set me apart. I felt as if I was some alien life form placed on earth among humans, able to exist within their society with difficulty, yet separated from them by a gulf as wide as an ocean.
The 1990s and 2000s were a very different time, and there weren’t a whole lot of Autism experts in the small country town where I grew up. As a result, not only did I not have the benefit of knowing I was Autistic, neither did my parents and teachers. To their credit, even without a roadmap, there were some important things they got right. My parents whole-heartedly embraced my special interests; when I was really into dinosaurs, my Dad would char chicken bones in the fire then hide them around the garden so I could play at being a palaeontologist.
One of the most impactful things was that my obsession with writing was seen as a positive. This helped me to feel good about myself in spite of the many other things I struggled with.
I was diagnosed as Autistic at the age of 19. And at that point in my life, I thought I’d never be able to move out on my own or go to University or get a job or have a girlfriend. There were just so many things I thought I would never get to do. And I certainly didn’t see my Autism as a strength.
I couldn’t think of any other Autistics that I could turn to for help or advice. I felt overwhelmingly isolated and alone. There was nobody to reassure me that it gets better, that I wasn’t broken.
Life beyond school
When I finished school, I was in tears because I felt like my life was over. My Mum and Dad walked me through applying to University and told me that however impossible it seemed, they truly believed I could do it.
I was depressed, newly diagnosed as Autistic, and so wracked by anxiety that just the five minute walk to the local shops was a harrowing ordeal. I was about to move out of home to start Uni, and I was absolutely terrified of what lay ahead for me.
The first step was one of the hardest; moving 400 kilometres away from the tiny country town I’d grown up in to live on campus at La Trobe University in Melbourne. University was a trial by fire; it was often an extremely stressful experience. I’d miss classes because of my anxiety. I struggled to make friends due to being extremely socially awkward.
In a funny way my Autism came to the rescue as I adopted a hyperactive, stimming-based style of dancing at Uni parties, which turned out to be a great icebreaker. Gradually, I began to form closer connections with a small number of fellow students who were especially understanding and accepting.
Over time, things got better. I learned to manage my challenges, and I was able to graduate with a Bachelor in Social Sciences and a Postgrad in Journalism.
My graduation was one of the proudest days of my life. University introduced me to some of my closest friends, my first real relationship, and taught me I was capable of more than I imagined.
After University, I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with my life; I knew I loved writing, but that’s a very broad skill that can translate into a thousand different careers. I felt lost, adrift in life without a compass to steer by. I was unemployed and drifting aimlessly through life.
I knew I wanted to enter the workforce, but my experience with 9 hour work days on study placement taught me that constant bombardment of stimuli for such long periods at a time tended to reduce me to a quivering, ineffective lump. So I decided to ease my way in.
I started volunteering as a way to fill my time. I signed up to do meals on wheels. Around this time, I also started my blog ‘Max’s Shop of Horrors’. Someone at Asperger’s Victoria read an article I’d written, and invited me to help run a support group for young adults with Autism. From there, I got involved with the I CAN Network which is an organisation that focuses on the strengths and talents of people on the spectrum.
Whilst these were all volunteer positions, and technically I still lived on a disability support pension. Volunteer work was the best thing to happen to me in years. Its benefits were numerous; it got me out of the house and gave me something productive to do with my time. It gradually acclimatised me to the demands of the workplace. It introduced me to many people I now consider good friends. It gave me references to use on my resume.
Importantly, volunteering helped me to feel good about myself as I could contribute to my community and help others, thus giving me a sense of my own value. Between these roles and my blog, I suddenly found myself regarded as a spokesperson on the topic of Autism.
Journey to acceptance
Looking back, I’ve come further than I ever dared to imagine. I’ve moved out of home, graduated University and found my calling. My volunteer work in Autism advocacy developed into a paid job and I now do things I never dreamed I could be capable of.
As I CAN Network has grown, I’ve taken an increasingly active role. I became editor of the blog, a mentor first at camps, then later in schools, and a public speaker. The Network’s positive approach to the spectrum began to rub off on me, and for the first time in my life I began to feel at peace with my diagnosis.
I used to pathologize my Autism and blame it whenever things went wrong for me, but over the years, as I’ve met more and more Autistics, I’ve learnt to appreciate the diversity and strengths of the spectrum.
For most of my life, my Autism was something I instinctively tried to suppress. I was still reluctant to give free rein too, fearing it would be met with ridicule outside my circle of fellow Autistics.
Then, I met someone truly amazing. Today when I infodump about my passions, my girlfriend says my Autistic excitement makes me “sparkle”. Every time she says it, the fear of judgement and rejection I’ve carried is drowned out in a sea of joy.
Autism is an inseparable part of who I am, and while it took me three decades, I have finally learned to appreciate and accept myself, Autism included.
Life on the spectrum is like surfing when the sea is wild, like kayaking through rapids, like sun, rain, hail and lightning all in the same afternoon. It’s getting up every day and venturing out into a world of vibrant chaos, where indescribable joy and immeasurable terror clash and fracture into a kaleidoscope of thought and feeling. And I wouldn’t have my life any other way.
My message to children with Autism is that you are not a broken version of normal. You’re just different, and that’s okay.
Remember to focus on your strengths; they will take where you need to go in life. There will be tough times, but you’re stronger than you think, and eventually, things will get better. Just because you can’t see the sunrise at midnight doesn’t mean it’s not coming.
You can find out more about Writer, Editor Mentor and Public Speaker Max Williams’ journey on Instagram.
In our social media series #StoriesOfTheGoodLife we explore what a good life means for people with disability. People from all walks of life, living rich, full and meaningful lives on their own terms.
Funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.