When Thomas Kuzma was in high school, he stood in front of his assembly and told his bullies “I’m on the autism spectrum and I’m proud”.
It’s a story he shares regularly throughout the year, as he tours around NSW speaking at schools and events as one of Autism Spectrum Australia’s engagement officers.
It’s also something that resonated with 13-year-old Summer Halford, a year 7 student at Aspect’s satellite Xavier High campus.
“It reminded me of when I was bullied when I was a younger kid,” she said.
“I think that autism is a good thing and not a bad thing.”
Classmate Adam Lippiatt was also inspired by the Blue Mountain man’s message.
“I liked how he talked about people who don’t have autism as neurotypicals,” he said.
“I agree that autism isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
Mr Kuzma said the idea of “neurotypicals” aligns with strategies to celebrate being on the autism spectrum.
“I talk about what the benefits are of having an autistic mind and why it’s important to be a different kind of brilliant,” he said.
“You have to recognise this is an experience in your life and it’s going to help define and shape you to the person you are.
“If you reject it or try to walk away, all you’re doing is stalling time.”
Mr Kuzma outlined physical activity to help with stressful times, therapy and identifying strengths among strategies that have helped him to achieve his goals.
“Always see a therapist – a professional opinion is always valid,” he said.
“If we have support from mentors and people who are working in the disability industry, that helps us.”
Aspect Riverina special education teacher Sue McLaurin said Mr Kuzma’s visit had been eye-opening.
“Thomas is here as part of our mental health month for October and spreading the message different is OK,” she said.
“The school we work with is very inclusive of our students, but we felt they needed to know more information on people with autism.
“As an educator, we always try to work with a strength based-approach, but listening to Thomas today really concretes that.
“It’s really important for students to know their strengths.”
Mr Kuzma said focusing on his strengths – like public speaking – had been key to his success.
“Autism is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a characteristic like being really tall or having a nice nose,” he said.
“We are the sum of our experiences and you have to take into recognition certain parts of who you are.
“When it comes to finding out who we are as people, who have to remember to consider the good times and the bad in our life.”