Autistic Kiwi hopes to inspire others on spectrum following adult diagnosis

Jolene Stockman.
Jolene Stockman. Photo credit: YouTube / TEDx Talks

A Kiwi who was diagnosed with autism as an adult is hoping her success story will inspire others who are navigating the neurodiverse world.

Jolene Stockman had her self-described "coming out" in 2018 following her diagnosis, where she gave a TEDx Talk in New Plymouth titled "How to be normal (and why not to be).

She has since presented at international conferences, corporates, and community groups, as well as signing to the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau in Canada. She has also presented to global tech giant IBM on the strengths and challenges of neurodiversity in the workplace, and two weeks ago she was welcomed back to present on autistic culture and how everyone benefits from listening to those on the spectrum. 

She says as a woman, it's more difficult to get diagnosed since they can camouflage symptoms and "mimic normal".

"For every nine boys diagnosed with high-functioning autism, there is one girl. But we're not rare, we're hidden," Stockman says during her TEDx Talk.

"Like me, many autistics are only diagnosed as adults, either due to their own child's diagnosis or a crisis too big to camouflage." 

What led to her diagnosis was a shutdown while she was in a shopping centre.

"On top of years of working too much, pretending too much, being too much, now here are the lights, the sounds, the voices, the smells. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't move, I couldn't speak. My bones felt heavy, I was numb. I got to a seat, but I wasn't there. I was way down in the quiet."

Stockman says when autistic people experience sensory overload, it can result in a shutdown - like her - or a meltdown, which "lots of people" are familiar with. 

"This is a temporary loss of control, and it can be a physical outburst: crying, screaming, kicking. It's not the same as a tantrum. It's not being spoiled, or naughty. It's not a kid's bad parents or an adult's self-control. It is a physical reaction, like sneezing, like smiling. It is a breaking point after a build-up."

After her diagnosis, she says she no longer felt weird or alone. Instead, she had more of an understanding of who she is. 

"I'm still figuring it out, I'm still getting used to the language. For me, I don't have autism, I do not suffer from autism - I'm tangata whaitakiwātanga, an autistic person. It's who I am, it's how I'm wired," she says.

"I also want everyone to know that just because you feel weird and just because you feel different, it might just mean you're in the wrong place."

Alongside delivering speeches and presentations, Stockman is also the author of four young adult books, the winner of media, education, and business awards, and one of the youngest in the world to achieve the Distinguished Toastmaster Leadership Award. 

She's also started using digital art to express and navigate the neurotypical world. Her work has been featured in exhibitions in New Zealand and at the second European Autism Congress 2020 in Budapest, Hungary.