Autistic Kiwi performing artist says difference is his 'superpower'

A soon-to-be performing arts graduate who lives with autism has described the neurological difference as his "superpower".

In collaboration with Newshub's Mind Fields series, Tahuaroa Ōhia spoke to The AM Show shared his personal experience and was joined by Altogether Autism national manager Catherine Trezona.

"Autism is to do with the way the brain is wired. It's under the umbrella of neuro-diversities… which means if someone is autistic, they will experience the world in a different way from someone like me, who is neurotypical. It's to do with the way the brain interprets and experiences the world," Tarzana told The AM Show on Tuesday.

Autism can be picked up at any point in life, Tarzana said. Clinicians will typically diagnose an individual based on their social interactions, sensory sensitivities, communication and way of thinking and behaving. 

Someone diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may experience a range of symptoms, the severity of which can vary widely. Common characteristics of autism include difficulty with communication and social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviours.

"[Rather] than thinking of severity levels, it's better to think about an individual person and what their autism looks like."

Ōhia, who was diagnosed with the developmental disorder when he was six years old, said the way he sees the world can be "really overwhelming sometimes". 

"Back when I was really little, I would scream like a dinosaur because I fell in love with dinosaurs," he shared. 

"I see nature and that calms me down. When I see a city, it blocks my views. My eyes start to get really weird. Every time I hear things around me, I can hear them either from a distance away, or I can hear my parents getting up, going to the kitchen to cook.

"How I see the world depends on what my eyes want to see or want to accept."

Ōhia says he is often triggered by a succession of demands or jobs to complete, which can become highly overwhelming.

"Back in the day, my parents would tell me 'do your bed', 'brush your teeth', 'have a shower' and I would just run around, galloping like an ape and roaring like a dinosaur just going through everything."

'It's not a disease in the mind - it's a superpower' 

Wherever someone falls on the spectrum, it's not a disease, Ōhia says.

Comparing autism to a superhero's struggle to fit in on Earth, Ōhia explained that parents should think of the disorder as a special superpower gifted to their child.  

"This is like a superpower that's gifted to your child. It's a superpower that they carry - it is very challenging but we can work through that," he said.

"It's like Superman, Clark Kent, he didn't know what to do on Earth, but the more he does it, the more he is used to it. I think that's why people need to learn - this is our superpower."

Both Ōhia and Tarzana agreed that people need to approach autism with more patience and understanding.

"I think [my message] for people in general is just patience. They need to understand this is really hard and difficult for us. But hey, you get used to it, and we can make it," he said.

Tarzana echoed that, urging people to "be patient" and look for common ground.

"Look for a way to connect with people, even if they're behaving in a way we think is a bit unusual - because there are superpowers behind that behaviour."

Ōhia is set to graduate with his performing arts degree on May 4.