Me, Autism & The Trip of a Lifetime
By Quintin Murphy
Agriculture Scholar 2017
April is World Autism Month. A month designed to promote awareness and understanding of autism, which affects over 164,000 (2015 statistic) people in Australia.
My name is Quintin, and I am a 22-year-old agriculture student studying at Longerenong College in regional Victoria. I am one of the recipients of the 2018 BBM Youth Award for Agriculture, and I have autism which was diagnosed in primary school. People often ask me what it’s like living with autism. This is such a difficult question to answer because I know no different. Autism is so complicated and varies amongst people. Two key issues I struggle with is that I find it difficult to explain my strengths and weaknesses, and I struggle to ask for help. This then becomes frustrating for myself and the people around me.
In May 2018, and as part of my Agribusiness Management studies at Longerenong College, I went to the UK for two months to work on a mixed cattle and sheep farm in Scotland. This wasn’t my first time overseas. I had been on a few trips with my school and scouts, an organisation that I am heavily involved with. However, this was the furthest I’d been from home and the first time I’d done it on my own. I encountered numerous challenges and it taught me many lessons, often accompanied by lots of stress and pressure. Looking back, I think ‘well how else are diamonds made?’
My original dream was to complete work placement in the USA. But, and here is the first lesson, I didn’t ask for help. I’m a very independent person and like many people, I struggle to ask for help. Upon reflection, I feel this comes from me wanting to convince myself that I am just as capable as people not on the spectrum. But that’s not the reality because the most difficult part of the trip was organising it. I’m a very introverted person, and I find it very confronting to contact complete strangers, particularly over the phone. Another challenge I faced, and still have difficulty with, is putting thoughts into words. I often ramble as I try to find the right words to use. This can be a problem when it comes to writing applications with word limits, and I need to ask for help.
When my plans for the US fell through, I was lost. Autistic people often find it difficult to cope with change, and though I like to think I’m pretty good at accepting change, this was hard. I was running out of time and none of my plans were eventuating. I was also struggling to complete the growing number of assignments. Lecturers were questioning me, and I just couldn’t handle it. I remember sitting in my room staring at the wall, crying and shaking. For me, overwhelming stress is a trigger when it comes to breakdowns. Over the years, I have taught myself how to deal with these triggers. I now go to a ‘safe place’, often my room or somewhere away from people, and rid myself of all the emotion that is stored up. I had no choice but to seek advice, and with help and reassurance I changed my plans and was soon on a plane to Scotland.
I could foresee lots of challenges with the trip – negotiating airports and traveling through cities and countries I was not familiar with, interacting with people from completely different cultures and backgrounds, and having to trust complete strangers. But it wasn’t like that. In fact, a big lesson I learnt overseas was how welcoming people can be. The biggest challenge I faced in the UK, and I see it here in Australia, is a lack of understanding of autism, particularly in agriculture.
“All I wanted to do was go home…”
I don’t have a farming background, but I do have a passion for it and I want to follow that passion. Having limited practical skills can make finding work on a farm very difficult. Add the learning difficulties I have because of autism and it makes it nearly impossible. Sadly, my employers also didn’t help this situation. As previously mentioned, it can often be difficult explaining my autism to others. To an extent, you need to rely on those around you to do the talking for you. As an independent 21-year-old, this was difficult because employers could see it as a sign of weakness or lack of ability.
I want to be regarded as ‘normal’, which as a good autistic friend of mine says is a setting on a washing machine, not people! Instead of speaking up about the challenges I was facing on the farm, I kept quiet. I didn’t ask for help, and if I tried to explain what was happening, it felt like no one listened. I was alone, homesick and having one breakdown after another. This was affecting my sleep which in turn affected my work, which made my employer more frustrated. All I wanted to do was go home…
But I pushed through, and I did have good times working in Scotland. I learnt several new skills, but more importantly I learnt A LOT about who I am. Pushing through was possibly the best choice that I could have made because, even though it wasn’t a great experience, I learnt to stand up for myself. I am now much better at talking to my employers about autism and how it affects me. I did get the opportunity to show my knowledge and skills when we were shearing. I worked as a roustabout, moving sheep and wool around the shed for the shearers. This was a positive because I knew what to do and how to do it. Another positive was taking the opportunity to travel and sight-see. I visited London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. This was a lesson in itself as a I had to negotiate massive cities on my own and not get overwhelmed. I was far away from the safety of home with no one to look after me if something happened.
This trip opened my eyes to how my autism actually affects me and what areas I struggle with. To find the positive in the negative, I’ve learnt that sometimes the trials that we face are there to build us up, to make us stronger as people and to learn something within ourselves.
It’s just like diamonds, born under pressure.
So, the big questions: would I recommend people go overseas? YES! You grow when you’re out of your comfort zone. And what better way to get out of your comfort zone than to fly to the other side of the world?
Would I recommend it to people on the spectrum? Again, YES! Just make sure you use your support networks, make sure all parties are talking to each other and your hosts are aware of, and understand your needs.
What now? Since coming home, I’ve continued my studies and still find work a challenge. I’m more equipped to deal with the challenges that working presents to people on the spectrum. Almost a year on from when I flew out, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my experience and what I want to do with it. One thing for sure is to raise awareness and understanding of autism and how it affects people and their work, particularly in the agricultural industry. I want to encourage and show young adults on the spectrum to be independent and to be their own person by getting the support they need. And over time, employers will learn to know how to work with employees on the spectrum.
I would not have had this opportunity to grow and learn without the support and advice received from BBM, Longerenong College and my personal support networks. When asked was going for the award a mistake I say it wasn’t and would definitely do it again if the opportunity arose. There’s no point in running from challenges, everyone will face them at some point in their lives, and sometimes, the best thing to do is to ask for help and to learn from the challenges you face.
AIHW, 2017. Autism in Australia. [Online]
Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/autism-in-australia/contents/autism