AutismBC Connects with Mac Walsh!
How do you like to be identified? (i.e. Autistic, an individual living with autism, person on the spectrum, etc.)
I am 19. I identify as autistic and trans, non-binary. My pronouns are she/he/they.
What is Whistler Adaptive Ski & Sport Program? Could you tell people about your role as an instructor and why your work is important to you?
Whistler Adaptive is a non-profit society that has been in operation for over 20 years. The organization provides recreational programming for people of all ages with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities, year-round. Their programs are open to both locals and people from around the globe.
I started with Whistler Adaptive at 14, a year after being diagnosed with autism at 13. Though I have skied since I was 6, I hated it the whole time. I struggled to keep up with my peers, to fit in with the group. I started snowboarding when I was 12 and although I loved it, I still hit a point where I could not comfortably keep up. This all changed when I discovered Whistler Adaptive. I remember going in and everyone being so welcoming. I remember panicking because I was struggling to get my gear on comfortably. In my mind, I was going to be late or hold everyone back, but instead of being pushed and rushed, I was encouraged to take my time and to take it all off and start again. No judgement. No “come on, just hurry up already,” just pure patience and kindness. My instructors were there for me and from that moment on, I never looked back. I LOVED it on the mountain; my mum had to fight to get me off each day.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to become an instructor. By the time I was 16 and could finally take my CADS (Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing) Level 1 instructor training and test, I had been practicing my skills for years! Near the end, we would spend up to half of my lesson each day working on CADS skills and the other half shredding the slopes. I absolutely love teaching with WASP. Having experienced the organization from both the student and instructor sides first hand, I can tell you just how amazing and life-changing the organization is. Having been a student that has grown up in the program, I am able to bring a different perspective. Between trying different teaching methods, helping reduce anxiety, and the general experience of going up the mountain with WASP, I have done it all.
I remember this one day, I was teaching this one student who was terrified of going down a steep slope that we came across. The agreement was we would go down, one instructor below him, one above, and hold his hands, but he was still very anxious. Of course, by default, we were trying not to squeeze his hands too hard, but then I realized that of course, deep pressure! His instructor and I immediately switched to deep pressure on his hands and he calmed right down. Had I not been able to relate on this personal level, I’m not sure I would have come up with that solution. In addition to bringing these personal experiences, I am also a role model for both my students and their parents. My students see me as someone they can look up to, and for their parents, when they find out I have autism and have grown up with WASP, I think they see a lot of hope and potential for their own child.
How long have you had your service dog; K9 Chase and how does she support you in your day-to-day life?
The decision to get a service dog is a big one. The difference in an autism dog for me, versus a young child, is that I am the primary handler. We had to wait to inquire until I had shown that I had the capacity to manage a dog entirely on my own in every way, including on-going training, day-to-day care, budgeting, etc. After my younger sister died by suicide in December 2019, I had very low motivation and was beginning to slip more and more into depression tendencies. We decided it was time for a change.
Chase is a very happy–go–lucky, calm, and intelligent service dog. She has undergone years of specialized autism training to assist me. Difficulty with sensory processing, emotional regulation, transitions, social situations, and more are common in people with autism. Chase acts as my grounding point and helps mitigate these challenges by performing specific tasks. Some of these tasks include deep pressure stimulation, tactile grounding, kinetic engagement, crowd control, sleep assistance, and social support. In addition to the immense support Chase provides me with for the day–to–day struggles I face, she also gives me a built-in routine, purpose, and accountability.
We’d love to hear about some of your work in raising awareness for people on the autism spectrum and queer issues. What message do you want to get out to others in the community by doing this important work?
I consider myself a trailblazer and a strong self-advocate. In high school, I spent a lot of time educating those around me on queer issues, as well as advocating for myself in relation to my autism and disability awareness. I was the first openly gender non-conforming student at my school and was a strong leader in my school’s gender and sexuality alliance club. Additionally, in school, I formally presented to staff educating them on gender and sexuality, as well as presenting to classmates by sharing my journey both in relation to being autistic and queer. Self-advocacy and resilience are not skills you are born with. They are things you develop and build on throughout your entire life. Only through experience and perseverance, was I able to learn the self-advocacy skills I have today.
A lot of my self-confidence and advocacy did not bloom until around grade 10; however, prior to that there were a couple things here and there. For example, in grade 8, just after I was diagnosed with autism, there was a project called Night of the Notables where each student personified a person of significance across many areas such as politics, arts, sports, activism, etc. I decided to be Temple Grandin and spent the night educating people about ‘myself’ (as Temple of course!) as well as autism in general.
Outside of school, in addition to Whistler Adaptive as discussed above, I have recently volunteered with Vancouver Adaptive Snow Sports, Vancouver Pride Society, Queer Arts Festival, Vancouver Folk Fest Accessibility tent, the Whatever Youth Committee with West Van District, YouthLAB with Family Services North Shore, and more. When I was younger (11), I reached out to Canucks Autism Network and participated in my local Community Day Parade on behalf of them for a number of years. I reached out to my family and friends to join me in the parade, which in itself raised awareness within my own circle, in addition to the wider community. I also fundraised for and participated in CAN’s family festival for many years (again recruiting family and friends to join me!).
During all of these opportunities, I do my best to follow my mission to take people where they are at and approach all conversations with an open mind. Whether I am in a learning role or an educating role, I always do my best to listen, learn, and advocate.
What has life at university been like for you? What was the transition like?
I am currently in my second year at the University of Calgary, enrolled under Undeclared Arts, with the intention of going into social work (it is third-year entry). This is my second year living in residence. The first year I lived in a three-bedroom unit with two roommates and this year I am in my own studio unit with Chase. The transition to university is a big one and it takes a lot of self-advocacy. From academic accommodations to residence, to the dining hall, to wherever else you might end up advocating for yourself. With COVID, classes have transitioned to online learning, which adds a whole other level of need in terms of support. While some things definitely feel as if they have a lot less pressure, such as peer relationships within class, the executive functioning angle, as well as the online aspect as a whole, definitely pose unique challenges. I have found myself working with more academic supports than I did last year, which can sometimes feel like I am taking a step backward, but I know that in reality I am advocating for myself and seeking the support I need. The biggest advice I would give is to not be afraid to reach out and ask for the help and support you need. Don’t be shy. Get in contact and make yourself known to the people that are there to support you, particularly ahead of arriving on campus. Those people are there to help and they want to see you succeed. This can sometimes be easier said than done and can take a lot of perseverance and resilience, but I promise it’s worth it in the end.
Thanks again to Mac Walsh for sharing their experiences.
Tell us your story! If you are a caregiver or a person on the autism spectrum in BC and would like to be featured, contact us!