By Jeanette Purkis
This article was originally published on Jeanette Purkis’ blog, and is available at https://jeanettepurkis.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/yellow-ladybugs-and-cooking-circles-empowering-autistic-girls/. You can read all about Jeanette and find all her musings at https://jeanettepurkis.wordpress.com/.
I spent this afternoon at a Cooking Circles event with Yellow Ladybugs – two organisations which are in Canberra and whose work I really value.
Cooking Circles is a women’s empowerment project which builds connections between women through the shared experience of preparing and eating food together. I have been to a few of their other events and really enjoyed myself and had some amazing conversations. Yellow Ladybugs is a support and empowerment organisation for autistic women and girls. They put on regular activities for autistic teens and younger girls. They are primarily led by parents of autistic daughters and many of the parents have a diagnosis or identify as autistic themselves. Both organisations effect social change through connections between individuals. Both organisations are very powerful in this respect and make a big difference.
My role in Yellow Ladybugs is as an ambassador for the Australia-wide group. In Canberra my role is essentiality being an autistic adult for parents to talk to and share thoughts and to be a sort of unofficial aunty for the girls. Yellow Ladybugs is one of my favourite things in the world. Girls socialise with other like-minded peers, they connect with their ‘tribe,’ and can ‘be’ in a space where everyone is supportive. Girls can be themselves at these events free from bullies or teasing. I always think about my childhood and how most of the experiences I had in social space outside of my family were not very autistic-friendly at all and anything I did which was out of the ordinary would result in bullying, me being disciplined or my parents being shamed. Of course these things still happen but the level of understanding and respect for diversity around autism is changing in a good way and I see organisations like Yellow Ladybugs as being at the forefront of that movement for change.
Today the girls were making Japanese bento lunchbox-inspired creatures from rice, vegetables and nori seaweed. There were some amazing creations and every time I looked at the table there were lots of small people looking intently at what they were doing. Some of the women organising the event and some helpers were in the kitchen cooking up rice and dessert and washing a seemingly endless stack of dishes! offered my assistance and was reminded that my value was in talking to people. I’m happy to do my more intangible ‘work’ so got back to talking with parents and girls.
I have always witnessed lovely, heartening exchanges at Yellow Ladybugs events. This time one of the mums told me about taking her daughter for the autism assessment and asking her if she knew what it was all about. Apparently the girl looked all worried and said ‘oh no, Please don’t tell me that I don’t have autism!’. When her mum assured her that the outcome of the assessment was that she WAS on the spectrum the little girl was so delighted and relieved and said ‘I knew something was different and now I know what it is.’ I am still a bit teary as I write that. I think of what learning my own autistic identity cost me, how I hated the very thought of being ‘officially weird’, that I didn’t accept my diagnosis for seven years. Just thinking about that girl and her autistic identity coming so naturally because presumably in her mind it was not at all shameful or a reason to judge yourself as I had brought home to me the importance of the work we are doing.
At the end of the event the were three little girls playing together. Their mums told me they are friends in the world outside of Yellow Ladybugs. I had a great conversation with the girls’ mums, talking about all things autism. The parents are always the people I speak to most, sharing my thoughts and experiences, offering support and examples of how I have overcoming challenges in my life.
When I started on my autism advocacy journey parents would frequently talk about their child as if the child wasn’t right there in front of them. Autism was spoken of like a curse or a tragedy and the parents would say how hard life was because of their kid as if the kid couldn’t hear them. I always think of how those kids must feel, knowing their parents think of them as more of a burden than a gift. Autism can be hard for a number of reasons but when I hear people airing their angst right in front of an impressionable child it breaks my heart. Thankfully I see this less and less. It is not OK and I hope to see a world where this is as frowned upon as hitting children for discipline is now.
At the start of Canberra Yellow Ladybug events the ACT YLB committee often ask me to give a very short speech. This basically involves me welcoming everyone, telling the girls that it is their event and to have fun and briefly mentioning whatever the activity is. Today I added a bit. I introduced myself as a ‘grown up Ladybug.’ I am an autistic adult woman. The sorts of things I experience are common to autistic children and young people as well. At these events, the girls see that they are not isolated or alone, there are other girls – and women – who see the world through a similar lens to them. Cooking Circles is about women’s empowerment and Yellow Ladybugs is really about autistic women – and girls’ empowerment. Today’s event was a great mix of approaches and collaboration between two organisations aiming for similar goals. I enjoyed it immensely and it was quite different to the other events I have attended. There were lots of girls and most of them seemed to be enjoying the day and socialising with their peers. Imagine if every autistic woman had this sort of outlet from a young age? Being supported to be who you are, being in ‘Autistic space’ and having adult role models as well as your parent/s that support and respect you? Yes, let’s do that.
Thank you to Yellow Ladybugs and Coking Circles for creating such a space to encourage pride, inclusion and engagement.