If you had told Bryce Pace a year ago he would stand in front of a state parliamentary inquiry and speak with candid confidence about his personal experience with autism, he wouldn’t have believed you.
But that is just what the 17-year-old Brauer College student did on Monday morning, even cracking the audience up with some jokes.
Bryce, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of nine, is determined to make people see how much people on the spectrum can do. Speaking at the inquiry, which is assessing the adequacy of services for people with autism spectrum disorder, was another important step on that mission.
After the diagnosis in primary school, Bryce went from being happy to feeling miserable as people underestimated his capabilities.
“Once I got diagnosed, my school got told about it and they sort of treated it as if I had a disability and I needed a lot of extra help which I didn't actually need,” he said.
“I was held back a bit in areas like maths so I was two years behind in maths when I was in secondary school. Instead, they decided to teach me life skills.”
The limitations Bryce experienced after he was categorised as somebody with a disability scarred him so much that when he went to high school he kept the diagnosis a secret for four years, even asking his mum not to tell his teachers anything.
This year, in part after gaining more confidence through his involvement in the I Can Network – an autism mentoring program being piloted in the south-west – the year 11 student finally decided to tell people at school he had autism.
Bryce said meeting other teenagers on the spectrum through the program changed how he viewed other people and made him more passionate about being an advocate.
In July he was elected to the Victorian Student Representative Council, a group of 15 teens. He stood for the position saying he would speak up for people with autism and push for change.
“That’s the reason why I’m where I’m at at the moment with the state SRC,” Bryce said. “I want to give students a chance to prove what they can do and not let community perceptions stop them, as it did with me.”
I want to give students a chance to prove what they can do and not let community perceptions stop them, as it did with me.Bryce Pace
Bryce’s full speech is below:
Good morning, I’m Bryce.
I’m 17 years old and currently studying year 11 at Brauer College in Warrnambool. I was diagnosed with autism when I was nine years old.
Before I was diagnosed I thought I was what most people would describe as normal. I was a happy kid who didn’t care what people thought of me.
In primary school I had a rough time after my diagnosis as my school didn’t know what or how they should teach me as to them I was the kid with the disability label. They taught me life skills, some of them like reading a telephone book were very last century and I was living in this century; I wanted to move forward but I felt that they were holding me back.
When I reached secondary school I hid who I was as I wanted to be treated like everyone else. I hid for four years and only this year have started telling people of my diagnoses.
That story is the reason why I am the person I am today, and it is the story of many others with a similar experience, however, if it wasn’t for my primary school’s negative view on autism I would probably not be so passionate about student voice.
In July my confidence made a big leap and I made a nomination speech in front of over 180 students from all over Victoria in hopes to be elected onto the State Student Representative Council. I made my speech about being on the Autism Spectrum and how I wanted to represent all the students who are considered as not being mainstream, and in particular those on the autism spectrum.
My autism is not a disability as it has given me a lot of amazing and unique abilities, for example, I can smell watermelon chewing gum at fifty paces and if someone has not had a shower today I will know it.
I recently discovered that I am also pretty good at drawing buildings and coming up with designs that are imaginative and that people enjoy looking at. My graphics teacher has even made a comment that I should start designing resorts as my house drawings look so good.
When I first discovered the I Can Network I was at work and there was something about their student mentor program on the news. I instantly got interested as I could see how this program could benefit students like me on the spectrum. At the time I had no idea the impact this network would have on me.
This year I signed up to be part of the pilot mentoring program in the south-west and attended a camp and I go to meetings every second week at my school.
When I walked in on the first day I didn’t know what to expect and honestly I still don’t. I love this program as it has given me the opportunity to allow all my autism traits to come out to play and I have got to talk to students who before the program I probably wouldn’t have talked to or have even known existed.
This program has also given my confidence a boost. For an example a year ago if you told me I would speak before you today about how wonderful autism is I wouldn’t have believed you as I was terrified of public speaking and of what people would think of me being on the spectrum.
I would like to finish by saying the one thing that has gotten me this far is my belief in myself and how my autism and my voice can be of benefit to those who still struggle with their own diagnosis. That is the reason the I Can Network exists as Chris and everyone who works at the I Can Network believes the same thing and they are working towards this vision.
I believe a world that embraces and appreciates autism is possible, we just have to work towards it.