Living with autism
by Lisa McIntosh
Like many 16-year-old boys, Geordie Mills loves playing video games – especially sci-fi ones. In Year 11 at Golden Grove High School in Adelaide’s north-eastern suburbs, he really enjoys drama lessons – especially the chance to act and ‘make fun of himself’ on stage.
Another favourite is IT classes. ‘It’s fascinating for me learning how big things are’, says Geordie, who with his family is a member at Golden Grove Lutheran Church. ‘For instance, we were learning about the internet one day and it was so interesting to learn how the internet actually works and how vast it is.’
He hopes to join the Royal Australian Air Force as a Communications and Information Systems Controller when he leaves school. For now, he is a member of Australian Air Force Cadets and recently passed a leadership course with flying colours.
‘Cadets is probably the most favourite of all things I do outside of school’, Geordie, whose mum Elizabeth Mills works in administration for the Air Force, says. ‘I like the military side, like when you’re out bush and you’re sneaking around behind people. That’s the fun part about cadets, all the chaos. I ended up having to dolphin dive over somebody. It’s heaps of fun.’
Readily admitting that he has regular arguments with his younger sister, Amelia, who’s 9, Geordie seems typical of high-achieving, active teens.
But, along with what for most people is the toughest part of high school, and dealing with all the usual pressures of being 16, he has the added challenge of living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s falls within the autism spectrum as a subtype and is a condition that affects the way people communicate and relate to others.
Currently, there is no single known cause of autism or Asperger’s. It is estimated that there are 52 million people on the autism spectrum worldwide.
For Geordie, one of the most difficult things about living with autism is struggling to ensure other people understand him – and for him to understand others as well.
‘It does make me frustrated’, he says. ‘I am definitely frustrated especially when I have “complicated” days. But I just keep pushing on, to be honest.’
When he has a ‘complicated day’, Geordie says playing video games is probably the best way to feel better. ‘I just shut myself off from the rest of the world’, he says.
‘Getting older it’s easier to recognise when I’m having a complicated day. But when I’m around my sister (who is also on the autism spectrum), I can’t back down from an argument or when things do get complicated. But I know when to avoid my friends, when they’re in a mood where they reckon they’re joking but I don’t want to be around them.’
Living with autism also can make being involved in the things he loves doing stressful for Geordie.
‘I’m constantly stressing out about cadets but I still enjoy it’, he says. ‘Actually it’s the fear of being wrong and getting in trouble.’ Geordie also thinks it would help for those he encounters at cadets to have a greater awareness about autism to go with the medical condition identification tag he wears.
And while he enjoys having a mum in the defence forces, he hasn’t thrived on the associated moves that can go along with the job – from Wagga Wagga in the New South Wales Riverina, to Newcastle in the same state’s Hunter region, then to Adelaide.
‘Having an insight into the military is definitely helpful’, he says. ‘I plan to get into the military and mum’s just loaded with information that I can ask. But I don’t like moving because then I have to make new friends and I’m not very good at making new friends.’
Geordie was diagnosed with Asperger’s at around seven years of age. He has recognised in the years since that he has been treated differently from other people at times. And, naturally, that’s pretty hard to take.
‘People don’t really want to approach me’, he says. ‘I get looked at funny. To be honest, it makes me feel depressed. Those moments when you have awkward conversations, I hate it. It feels like I can’t talk to anyone about my problems.’
What would he most like people who don’t live with autism to understand about it? ‘To be understanding’, he says, ‘to try to understand what I’m trying to say. That’s the worst thing, when I’m trying to explain something to someone and it’s difficult, I have no words to explain it.’