Source: Human Rights Commission
Tamara Grant wants the invisible to be more visible. She has autism, a neurological difference mostly hidden unless we know about it. But she is one of 80,000 people with autism in New Zealand, and believes the onus is on all of us to open our eyes and be more aware.
“It’s hard to communicate with people, it’s almost like they speak a different language. And with autism I feel it’s challenging but once you are aware of different things that happen it does become easier because you can find coping mechanisms, and usually you have to find your own ones, there’s no one-track system or place you can go to really that will completely help you.“
Tamara’s different way of viewing the world and interacting with people took years to become clear to her. From early childhood she kept being told she wasn’t acting like anyone else. She was eventually only diagnosed as autistic at age 15.
“Well they say with girls who have autism, they don’t get diagnosed until later because they’re more silent. And so I didn’t speak my mind to my family or to teachers…so there wasn’t much that you could see behaviourly that was different. But there were things…I would lose things so easily, like school bags, shoes, clothes. I pretty much would never come home with the things I would have. And I never passed a test…they thought I was just being lazy.”
Now 21, Tamara has the self-awareness that many only acquire in a lifetime. A mother, artist and advocate for mental health support, she has had to work very hard to find a way to live a secure and happy life in a world that largely refuses to allow for people with cognitive and invisible impairment.
“I’m a mother of a nearly 3-year-old, and once with that stress it really triggered my autism, in different types of ways, to points of being non-verbal. It would scare me to go outside sometimes because of that, but with determination, I am very determined, I’ve learned how to get past that point and know the signs of when I’m about to get a sensory overload, so I don’t have to feel that anxiety of ‘Oh, no, I’m going to need a support worker to come in!’ or anything like that.”
Tamara is also dyslexic and experiences mental distress including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her positive spirit and strength of character are evident in every breath, but there are times when things do overwhelm her.
“In some social situations I can lose my voice, and it sounds like I’ve had a stroke, but it’s just because of autism, I don’t know how to explain it, doctors can’t even explain it. So it is something that burdens me, and has burdened me, that I can lose control of my body and my voice, if I haven’t slept well, eaten well, or if I’m under too much stress.”
Tamara’s autism, sometimes means she can’t easily comprehend news and information, and that made the Covid-19 lockdown this year a major challenge. She was unaware of exactly what was happening when confronted with a long queue outside her local store, something she’d never seen before.
“So I went to the front of the line and asked the lady at the supermarket. ‘Hi, can you please explain to me what’s going on?’ so, then I wouldn’t freak out and everything would go smoothly, and she just turned to me and was like ‘Oh, have you been living under a rock?’ and was like you should know what’s happening, and that really hurt me but I am lucky that I wasn’t non-verbal that day, and I could be like ‘Actually, no, I have autism’, and she felt very bad after that.”
Tamara says the secret is for all people to be taught emotional intelligence, and to better understand themselves and others around them so they can accept all differences.
“To learn about emotional intelligence and just learn how to treat one another would help the process of every single person is different, with a diagnosis or not. And I think that is something I mostly want to advocate for because it could help anyone with any disability…because it comes down to that stranger that doesn’t understand, it can completely ruin your day, that can really hurt you, and also not being able to express yourself can create social anxiety and then that creates a sensory overload.”
She echoes a growing and universal call for increased self-awareness.
“So having that emotional intelligence is something I would push for and advocate for everyone in New Zealand to be taught, so we can all be on the same playing field in a way. It would be something that could connect the disability sector, the mental health sector and the average person, and it’s something that I would truly want to see – mental equality.”
More information on autism and mental health: