Home » Autism: How My Unstoppable Mother Proved the Experts Wrong by Chris Varney at TEDxMelbourne (Transcript)

Autism: How My Unstoppable Mother Proved the Experts Wrong by Chris Varney at TEDxMelbourne (Transcript)

And with me, every film she made me watch, every book she made me read, had this “I CAN” enforced to it. My childhood was full of stories of children that had overcome adversity. This was no dream for mom. I certainly was no picnic. I asked her recently just how bad did this get? That’s a very dangerous question to ask your mom.

And she said, “Well, Chris, there was your finger-painting.” And I thought, what was so different about my finger-painting? And she said, “Oh, Chris. You did finger painting with your own feces. And I thought, “Whoa.” I had that reaction. I was like, “How did you survive me?!”

Because the thing that she never let me do was she never let me opt out of things. I never wanted to be social as a child, and she just refused to let me use autism as an excuse. And so I would pay down on her by throwing these tantrums, and it weren’t just typical child tantrums, it would involve the whole household. One of them was so bad that simply to avoid from throwing me through the window, she picked up my school bag, and threw it across my bedroom, and it managed to go through my bedroom wall. And I shut up after that one.

Now when my family reached their exhaustion threshold, I would be sent to the refuge of my grandparents. And my grandparents had this wonderful impact on me. My grandmother researched exercises that would help me with my anxiety, and I still use those exercises today.

My grandfather knew that I would have a panic attack at the thought of playing social sports like football and cricket with other children, and so he worked on my motor skills. He taught me sports in private and even though he was permanently in a wheelchair, he used his mind and his humor to enable me to feel confident in my own skin.

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At school, it would’ve been safe to call me “nine going on ninety”. My brother, Steven, he read Aladdin, and I read encyclopedias. I had this fascination with plotting the different royal families of Europe. I managed to do it from the 14th to 19th century. And I had distilled it down into this incredibly visual and detailed chart. And so when my grade 2 teacher, Miss Tey set an assignment, I matched this chart up to her because I just felt I have found a new way of seeing the last millennium. No wonder we had so many revolutions and conflicts; these families are way too connected, small community completely out of touch.

And so when I took it up to Miss Tey she said, “Oh goodness, Chris, doesn’t this chart look interesting? But darling, our assignment is on winter. Would you mind drawing what winter looks like?” And I thought, I’ve just done a PhD on the whole last millennium, and you want me to draw clouds and rain? That happened a lot to me at nine.

I would also tell stories about family trees that were broken. And so when I was ten years old, and I was watching a midday movie at my grandparents house, the film “Gone With the Wind” came on, and I couldn’t cope with the fact that the daughter of the two main characters, Bonnie, had died in that horrible horse riding accident. I thought, “What do you mean, the family tree’s come to an end? There’s no sequel? At ten, I’m going to have to continue that work.

And so I actually published a sequel to “Gone With the Wind”. I even threw in a sex scene, because that’s what my autism in visual perception could do with sex ed.

Raising me was also entertaining. I was very lucky at school to have the advantage of making some great loyal friends. At primary school, my friend, Erin could tell that my brain just absorbed every minor detail in class. And so she would help me to focus on class work, because I often wouldn’t get good marks because I’d trail off into minor things. She helped me to focus.

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When I was a teenager, it was my friend, Tim, that helped me pick up social cues so that I was less vulnerable to bullying. Because, unfortunately, in Australia, 80% of secondary students with Asperger Syndrome are targeted in schoolyard bullying.

When school was over, and I lost the safety net of my routine, because people on the spectrum love their routine, my friend, Alana, helped me focus on getting uni right, on dealing with my anxiety, and looking at campaigning, volunteering and children’s advocacy as a new focus for me.

And of my teachers, it was an extraordinary woman named Christine Horvath who met me at 13 and could immediately tell that I just had this different mind, that I moved differently, and that I had a way with words and memory and creativity. And so what she did was she set up platforms for me to tell stories. And I moved from the kid that no one really knew how to take to the respected story-teller in the schoolyard. And I’ve just been following that pathway ever since.

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