As a child growing up in Melbourne, Paul Micallef always felt different. In school, he struggled to fit in. Other kids seemed to know intuitively how to interact and to follow instructions that seemed obscure to him.
Some of his earliest memories are of sitting in class, watching, and trying to figure out how the others knew how to behave. Later in life, he would call this time his ‘Observational Phase’.
“I was a bit of that stereotype they call ‘the little anthropologist’, who studies the people around him instead of actually relating to them. I spent many years in that observing phase. I was trying to understand what was going on and I wasn’t doing a very good job of that. Even when I did understand, I didn’t have the skills to do anything about it.”
As a child, he was often described as ‘gifted’. Teachers and family would use this label to explain some of his unusual behaviors. He excelled in some subjects but fell behind in others. He often found it easier to relate to people who were older than him. It wasn’t until his teenage years that Paul had a breakthrough in his relationships.
“The big turning point was when I went from being on the outside to be on the inside of a friendship group. I feel really lucky, that I found a good group of friends when I was about 16. I jumped on the very last carriage as it was leaving the station, in terms of finding friends and learning how to make relationships in that crucial time of life.
Because I was on the inside, I got to see how it all worked from a completely different perspective. I started learning very, very quickly because I had the real-life experience to practice with. I still had no idea what I was doing or why, but because I was in it, I had to respond.”
He now calls this period of young adulthood, the ‘Practise Phase’.
When Paul left school, he enrolled in a Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Technology degree at Monash University. He completed his degree over five years and was quickly hired by Boeing, designing commercial aeroplanes.
University was another leap forward for Paul. He was able to study, live and socialise on his own terms, without feeling so acutely the need to ‘fit the mould.’
He’d found ways of interacting with others, which, although exhausting, allowed him to form the kind of close relationships that we all need. Even so, he would sometimes feel as though he was never making any progress in getting where other people came from. He learned to repress his immediate responses, out of fear of offending people. He often wondered if he would ever truly understand these things called ‘emotions’, that everyone else seemed to get so easily. It became an interest, and then a driving passion.
If he wanted to survive in the world, he had to learn what emotions were all about.
During this time, he began his own private research into the field of ‘Emotional Intelligence’. By absorbing the ideas of social scientists such as Daniel Goleman, he was developing a new theoretical framework for his own life experiences. This was the beginning of the next stage of his journey, what he describes as the ‘Dedicated Practise’ phase.
“People who are naturally good at all this emotion stuff, they don’t actually know why they’re good at it. They know what they do, but not why they do it. As a person on the spectrum, I need to know why.
So, when I started learning more about what emotions are and how they behave, everything else started to fall into place. Previously unanswered questions started having answers, questions like; ‘why do I need to look you in the eye?’ and ‘what is small talk for?’
Once I started getting answers to these fundamental questions, I was able to properly understand everything else as well. I was finally overcoming the barrier of people not being able to explain their own intuition. No one could give me an answer, so I had to find one myself. It just took over 20 years.”
It was this breadcrumb trail of books that finally led Paul to his diagnosis, at the age of 30.
He had gotten his hands on a copy of ‘Look Me in the Eye: My life with Aspergers’ an autobiography by John Elder Robinson, who discovered his own diagnosis at age 39. Reading Robinson’s account, Paul had his ‘eureka’ moment. By the time he put the book down, he knew that he had Asperger’s.
“To me, discovering Asperger’s was discovering a whole new world of language to describe an experience that I’d never been able to put words around before.
When I didn’t have correct words, other people wouldn’t always believe me on face value, when I said I needed a particular thing, for example. So it was a positive thing for me.
Most of the people I was talking to didn’t know what Asperger’s was, and they already knew me. So, they were learning about what Asperger’s was through me. I didn’t find that people treated me any differently, because people had already gotten to know me, and I already had a strong personality. I took ownership of the label and defined what it meant for me.
I think that’s a much healthier way of learning about the autism spectrum: by meeting people who are on the spectrum and then relating it to the diagnostic criteria or the more stereotypical stuff that you might find in a medical textbook. If you read the medical textbook stuff first, it’s harder to get a picture of what it actually might look like in real life.
The biggest misconception is that people get labeled as ‘high functioning’ and what people assume that means is that they don’t face any challenges. It doesn’t acknowledge the amount of effort or personal sacrifice that it takes to appear to be ‘high functioning’.”
Since his diagnosis, Paul has used his unique insight to spread awareness on autism and Asperger’s. He started blogging about his experiences and his EQ journey, on ‘Aspergers from the Inside.’ Last year, he worked as a mentor for the ICAN Network, a non-profit organisation that conducts workshops for people on the spectrum, to help build confidence and social skills.
“Because I had to learn all of those skills from scratch, I’m in a very good position to teach it to others in a way that acknowledges that they might not have this knowledge intuitively.”
These days, he’s devoting most of his time to his new venture, ‘Emotions Explained.’ This social enterprise aims to help others on the spectrum in developing their own emotional awareness. Paul teaches an online, four-week course that’s specifically designed to be autism-friendly.
“It only started last year, but the course has been really successful so far. There are lots of little turning points where I learned a new skill or a new theory, and I’m putting it all together into the course. I’m really excited about the possibility of allowing people on the spectrum who perhaps thought that they weren’t very good at emotional intelligence, to open up this new world for them. Understanding autism is about forgetting about stereotypes and expectations and meeting a person as a human being. Autism has a lot to give to the world, in terms of showing how human beings can be different, and how that difference is what makes everything beautiful.”
Torrens University has developed a suite of new education courses, designed to teach educators and the public how to look at the world from the perspective of a person on the spectrum. This month, Torrens launched a free, online ‘Voices of Autism’ MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). The cutting-edge course has been co-designed with the input of those experiencing autism. The aim is to overcome stereotypes and spread awareness about the reality of autism to as many people as possible.
“There are a lot of inclusion efforts that essentially try and make people conform, in order to include them. For better or worse, we do not conform to mainstream views.The message to people on the spectrum, that society needs to get better at telling us, is that ‘yes, you’re different, no, you’re not broken, yes we want to include you and we want you to keep your difference and be yourself.’ We have the ability to help create a world where we don’t have to fit the mould to fit into society. If we make a world that embraces autism, we’ve made a world that embraces everybody.” – Paul Micallef
Torrens University is the first Australian provider to introduce a new suite of courses in special education and wellbeing. Torrens University is addressing some of the contemporary challenges that mainstream teachers face in the classroom. Discover more about professional development for educators in the Autism field.