By D. Vienneau

Jolene Stockman is a multi-award-winning author, speaker and New Zealand Māori (tangata whenua o Aotearoa). She is also autistic. Without knowing it, she has achieved things that this “invisible disability” makes challenging at best, impossible at worst. She is one of the youngest persons in the world to achieve the Distinguished Toastmaster award for public speaking and leadership.

In 2017, Stockman made the courageous decision to go public with her diagnosis. And, in 2018, she delivered a TEDx Talk that received nationwide interest and exposure. A Master of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Stockman is revolutionizing perceptions and encouraging respect for human neurological variation (International Indigenous Speakers Bureau).

SAY was incredibly fortunate to speak with Stockman, and we are pleased to share some insight into Stockman’s life as an accomplished author, public speaker, a mom and a person who at the age of 36 was diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism, forcing her to look at life through an entirely different lens.

SAY: Tell us about where you are from.
Stockman: I grew up in Taranaki, on the western side of New Zealand’s North Island, which is still home. The mountain is our ancestor; he draws people and holds power. Growing up, I knew that I was Māori, but I had no clear culture or identity around that.

SAY: You said you didn’t connect to Māori culture as a child; tell us how being Māori is part of your life now.
Stockman: As a child, I believed that I was different, bad and weird. I now know that this was partly due to being autistic, but also because I was missing my cultural identity. I knew I was Māori, but I also had a general sense that it wasn’t a good thing due to the media, society and the bubble I was in. It was a different time, and although we still have a long way to go, so much has changed. Growing up has been magical—I have been able to make different choices, to reconnect with my marae (meeting grounds) and my hapū (sub-tribe) and learn the language, which I can now pass on to my children. Changing things for them is my biggest motivator, because identity is everything; it holds you together and makes a difference to your heart in ways you can’t always quantify. I see it in my children. They know who they are. There’s no doubt, and there’s no shame.

SAY: How has connecting with your culture impacted you personally?
Stockman: I’d always been told I was “too white” to be Māori, so I went looking for boxes I could tick. If I could learn whakapapa (family history), learn language, I could prove myself. After years studying Te Reo Māori (the Māori language), I felt ready to go to the marae, where I sat quietly. I felt like all I had to offer was my presence. But presence was enough. It always was, and that realization was huge for me. I had been missing a sense of belonging, and I didn’t even know it. Now I feel more connected; I feel whole. And walking the land, there’s this connection—feeling like a protector of the land in a way that you didn’t realize but that you’ve always felt. It’s still the beginning, I am constantly learning, and my children will have a whole different journey. I’m just here to plant seeds and trust in what comes from them.

SAY: You were diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism at the age of 36. How did that impact you?
Stockman: At first, I was angry. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, first because I didn’t believe it, and then because I thought it didn’t matter. I thought, ‘What difference does it make to tell? I’ve made it this far pretending to be normal, so why not keep pretending?’ Until I realized that people are being diagnosed every day and still being sold the same lies and limitations. People need to know that a diagnosis is not a prediction. You’re going to be okay, maybe even more than okay. As soon as you talk about autism, it’s nothing, but when you hide it, it becomes everything.

SAY: How has life changed since your diagnosis?
Stockman: I’m re-evaluating my whole life because, suddenly, times I thought I was ‘too sensitive’ or ‘overreacting’, now I think, ‘that was hugely challenging’ and ‘how did I get through that?’ I want to give parents who have autistic children that filter, that kinder perspective. Their kids are actually amazing and handling a lot. They are being inundated with all kinds of sensory stuff—movement, sound, light—basically threats that send their bodies into stress response. As humans, we are so
used to being yelled at by media, to being hungry and needy and disconnected from who we are that when we lower the volume and just breathe, we light up. It’s not “autism-friendly” to make our lives more peaceful, it’s human-friendly.

SAY: Earlier you said you ‘pretended to be normal all these years, so why stop now?’ Can you explain what you meant?
Stockman: Over the years, I learned to disguise my autistic traits. Being female helps. I talk fast, which people translate to enthusiasm. Another common autistic trait is flapping, which for me has become clapping, but it’s not voluntary. It’s one of the traits I just don’t have the energy to hide. Most of what I’ve hidden is related to thoughts and feelings—how I see things. Humans are so clever. As a child, you learn quickly what you can and can’t say, or what will get a good (or bad) reaction from the people around you. So you modify, and you continue to change slightly until you are unrecognizable. It’s how you survive.

SAY: What is it about Neuro-Linguistic Programming that resonates with you?
Stockman: I’ve always studied how people work, trying to crack the code for normal. Body language, psychology, media. The idea of brain-heart-body connections makes so much sense to me. The awesome thing about autism, and the challenge, is the diversity within it. The Māori word for autism developed by Māori linguist Keri Opai is “takiwātanga”, meaning ‘in his or her own time and space’. It embraces this diversity, fast or slow, a person who likes strong hugs or prefers not to be touched at all. This appreciation of diversity makes all the difference—there’s no single box to put someone in or boxes to tick that make you autistic or Indigenous, or anything else. We are kaleidoscopes with very specific, individual ways of processing the world.

SAY: Explain “the call for neurodiversity”.
Stockman: Neurodiversity is the idea that humans are naturally diverse in their brain function. Labels like ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ focus on “disorder” rather than “difference”, when actually some brains run on Mac and some on Windows. Neurodiversity is being wired differently, and the challenges we face often come from navigating a world that’s not designed for our kind of wiring. Finding strengths in our differences is key to the new world.

SAY: Can you speak about the importance of language as it pertains to autism?
Stockman: Identifying language is very personal. Generally, autistic adults speak in favour of autism being “part of who they are” rather than “something that happens to them”. Identity rather than disorder. When a child hears their parents say something like ‘we can’t make it because of his autism’, and the child knows that autism is as much a part of him as his right leg, then suddenly, that child feels there’s a part of him that hurts his family or can’t be loved. “She has autism” versus “she is autistic”. It sounds subtle, almost insignificant, but adults frame the world for children with the language they choose. If we’ve hit a point where we can focus on sensitivity around language, what a luxury! And if we can make a difference to people’s spirits with our words, then why wouldn’t we make kind, conscious choices?

SAY: Congratulations on becoming a published author. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Stockman: When I was five years old, my teacher gave me a notebook and explained that I could write down anything I wanted. I realized then that I had power and control over words. I could create my own world. I knew then that I would write
books when I grew up, but now when I do writing workshops with kids, I tell them: Don’t wait to be a grown-up. Start now.

SAY: What advice do you have for parents of children who have been diagnosed with autism?
Stockman: Trust your child. If they tell you something that you don’t understand, it’s real. It’s real to them even if you don’t see it, feel it or hear it. Stop expecting your child to fit into a world that honestly isn’t all that flash. Slow down, listen, trust. Be in the world with them. They come to us honest and real. We’re the ones that create boundaries and filters.

Talk to and about yourself more kindly, because children are paying attention—verbal, non-verbal, neuro-normative or neuro-diverse. They translate what you’re telling them with your actions towards yourself, towards others and towards the planet.

SAY: What are some of your future plans and hopes?
Stockman: At first, I was just happy to be able to refer to myself as ‘autistic’ and not feel ashamed. When I gave a TEDx Talk and felt the ground shift, I was sure that was as big as it could get. Then, in 2019 I spoke at an autism conference in Singapore where they’ve never had autistic presenters before. Incredible. Next year, I have a presentation at the European autism congress in Budapest, and there is so much more writing to do! We need more uplifting media—movies, TV shows and books. My hope for the future is already happening, more voices, more positive media. No more of this ‘oh no, my child is diagnosed. It’s the end of the world’. Because yes, it’s the end of a world, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of something so epic you can’t even imagine. My plan is to just keep going—because every year there are new horizons to explore and more voices joining the call.

This world is currently designed by and for the big voices. Autistic people are navigating a complicated world, similar to the struggles faced by many Indigenous peoples. But as the little voices are coming through, it’s making a huge difference. People are connecting with each other and realizing they are not alone.