Speaking up about Autism

“I used to be extremely shy. I was not a fan of other children. I didn’t like playing with others. In the sandbox, I stayed away from everyone and did not play. I used to sit by myself and everyone thought there was something wrong with me because I was socially different,” says Matt Green, an inspirational speaker with Toastmaster’s International.

When Matt was four, his mother took him to a psychologist and was told that her son had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Even though he was shy and didn’t like interacting with others when he was young, today Matt loves talking and meeting new people. His friends describe him as a social butterfly and the life of the party.

“He has a very colourful personality and a nice guy all around. And he’s a lot of fun; definitely a lot of fun,” says Glen Wilson, a friend of Matt’s, who has known him since ninth grade.

They met in grade nine science class, where they sat together, and one day Matt simply said hi.

“Matt used to be very shy and he had an afro,” Glen reminisces about their first encounter. “But we did a project together once and we’ve been friends ever since,” he adds that Matt has come a long way since high school and that Matt is now very social.

To an outsider, Matt seems like an average youth. He’s an outgoing guy, he goes to college for advertising, and he likes to go to the gym. He’s a sports fan and particularly enjoys running, basketball and of course, hockey.

“He’s told me he has Asperger’s, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him,” Wilson says.

Yet digging deeper will reveal that Matt is quite distinguished from his peers. For one, his positive attitude and confidence stems from his experience overcoming his disability. He turned his disability into ability, his fears into strengths.

“I used to be bullied because I have scoliosis and I had to wear a brace,” Matt says, adding that the brace caused him some teasing from other children, but that it also held him back from playing hockey, something he regrets he couldn’t do.

Scoliosis is a medical condition that causes the spine to curve abnormally, forming an “s” shape. And while it prevented Matt from playing hockey when young, there is little holding him back today.  He’s starting a sports commentary radio show at Centennial College. He is planning to have a section called “Motivation time with Matt” on his show, where he will help guide other students.

Matt is passionate about motivational speaking, especially speaking about autism and inspiring those diagnosed on the autism spectrum disorders, like himself. His experience with bullying and with autism inspired him to help others.

“When I was diagnosed the only resources were books and doctors. There was no internet and there wasn’t much to research. My parents, they just did the best they could to raise me,” he says, adding that it was really hard to figure out what autism was and that he didn’t want others to struggle through the same thing as he did.

He wanted to help others and he joined Toastmasters International five years ago.  Toastmasters is a non-profit educational organization that helps people improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. After joining, Matt became a motivational speaker about autism. He thought that was the best way to get awareness about autism out there and he wanted to help parents better understand their children’s behaviour and how best to help them.

“I used to be terrified of speaking in front of others, but the best way to overcome fear is to do that which you fear,” he says, adding that this attitude helped him overcome his shyness.

“I enjoy talking to people, it’s one of my strengths, but it never used to be. I used to hate talking in front of people, but Toastmasters trained me. We did different types of presentations. We worked on body movement, tone of voice and pitch, and just standing there in front of people and talking really helped me,” he says.

Matt’s advice to youth diagnosed on the autism spectrum is to join support groups and become involved in activities. He says he joined a support group himself and that it helped him greatly.

“I realized that I wasn’t the only one and I wasn’t alone. It made it easier to make friends with people like me and to come out of my shell,” he explains.

Parveen Dhatt-Sangha is a learning strategist at the centre for students with disabilities at Centennial College. She says feeling alone is a common thing among people with disabilities transitioning to college. That’s why Centennial College has a mentoring program for youth with disabilities called Start Smart. The program aims to do what Matt does; show people that there are others with disabilities and inspire youth to overcome their fears and reach their goals.

“The program is an opportunity for new, incoming students with disabilities to meet other student like them and also to meet senior students,” Dhatt-Sangha  says, explaining that the college pairs the student mentors with new students in the same or similar programs.

“What we found in a study we did was that students who stayed connected to their mentor, had a higher GPA than that of students who did not participate in the program,” she says, adding that the senior students can help with homework.

Students benefit from mentoring not only academically, but socially as well.

“The thing that works about mentoring is that the student makes a connection with somebody else who is going through the same type of thing so that they don’t feel so isolated,” she says.

“I mean, we can all relate to our first semester in school or college when we felt that we didn’t know anybody, and we were trying to navigate the system and the building, trying to find our classes. But for students with disabilities that kind of anxiety is heightened,” she explains that students have to not only consider how to get around campus but also if the campus is accessible to them.

Dhatt-Sangha says that the great thing about student mentors, and about young mentors like Matt is that they are easier to relate to.

“There’s no authority figure and there’s less of an age gap,” she says, explaining that having a peer as a mentor makes students more comfortable, accepted and less isolated.

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