For everyone A life-changing diagnosis
When Clem Bastow was diagnosed with autism at age 36, it brought on a re-evaluation of so many elements from her past and gave her a clearer vision of her world.
Melbourne radio presenter and journalist Clem Bastow was diagnosed with autism a few years ago at age 36, and this led to reflections on the aspects of life she has always struggled with. So much started to make sense – her difficulty socialising at parties, her encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music – and so she wrote Late Bloomer: How an autism diagnosis changed my life, a memoir that touches on the ways in which autism has been overlooked in girls. It is also a celebration of the autistic experience; when Clem was diagnosed, although there was grief, she saw an opportunity for positivity, and she jumped.
Clem wants to highlight the ways autism can present differently according to gender. “It can be hard to get solid stats on the prevalence of autism. For a teacher, chances are there are more neurodivergent kids in each class than they know of,” she says.
“The big takeaway from this past decade’s research is that autism looks different in girls. You might have a student who is outgoing and appears confident but is struggling. It can present differently in girls to the ways we might expect.”
“If non-autistic people experience issues, then autistic people might experience them more significantly.”
Clem teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne, and she has had time to think about ways to adapt teaching so that neurodiverse students feel comfortable. “Small things can be easy to consider,” Clem says. “For example, my cousin was in a class where the teacher got the children to change seats every week, and the intention was good – so that kids could get to know a range of other kids – but for my cousin, it just made him very stressed.
“We assume everybody will be able to cope with a range of things; there is an expectation to be able to pivot. But, for many, structure is good. Group work can be a real struggle,” she adds. “Not everybody functions well in social situations. Routine and reliability are so important.
“In my schooling, we didn’t have assigned seats but, nonetheless, everyone sat in the same seats every day. One day, the person next to me was away and someone asked if they could sit there, and I said no. I couldn’t handle the change.”
Other ways in which teachers could consider autistic students is by being aware of sensory issues. “Keeping an eye on students in the classroom. Things like: are the blinds up and the lights on? What is the temperature? If students are sitting on the ground, is the carpet itchy?”
These things can distract from learning, making concentration hard for children with autism. But everyone benefits when we fix these accessibility issues, Clem argues, because all students are more comfortable.
“If non-autistic people experience issues, then autistic people might experience them more significantly. For example, in a Zoom meeting with a few people, I can’t tell who is talking. It can be difficult.” In that situation, Clem explains, it is important that a chat function be available.
When asked what might have been different if Clem had known she was autistic when she was in primary school, she is very clear. “It would have explained why things felt so different for me. I was labelled things, like ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’ or ‘a weirdo’ – things like that you absorb on a deep level, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I had a maths teacher who basically treated me as a lost cause.” Clem writes more about that experience in the book. “But if I had known, it would have given me more of a sense of identity. People I have spoken to who were diagnosed earlier, they were better able to develop their autistic identity and pride from an earlier age.”