Spectrum Women Interview Series with Jen Elcheson: Meet Shadia Hancock

Shadia Hancock is an 18 year old Australian entrepreneur, coach, speaker, writer, animal empath, university student, and visual artist professionally identified as autistic at the early age of three. They recently started their own business where they are proud to offer life coaching and academic tutoring from an autistic perspective for other young people on the spectrum. In addition, Shadia is involved in other projects aimed to assist autistic people in finding their purpose in this often tough to navigate world.

Since we at Spectrum Women are all about working to help empower fellow autistic and neurodivergent people, I knew Shadia would be an excellent person to feature. They share many of the same values we do and as you will see, they are an amazingly driven and courageous advocate.

Jen: Hey Shadia! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. Now, I remember you mentioning how you were professionally identified at the age of three. With your family knowing you were autistic at such a young age, what was your life like growing up as a young autistic person? When did you learn you were autistic?

Shadia: My mother has been one of my biggest advocates throughout my life and has helped me so much in embracing my autism and being proud of it. She threw herself into researching autism when I was diagnosed and now specialises in teaching students on the spectrum. She realised that there was something different about me by the age of one, but was told by a professional that perhaps the problem was with my mother, not the child. This delayed the diagnostic process further. She has always been supportive and encouraged a growth mindset approach in all aspects of my life, helping me to celebrate my strengths and acknowledge my unique issues. It has been a great asset to have one parent so passionate about advocacy and autism, as my other parent is not very understanding and to this day I don’t think he believes I am on the spectrum. Having a formal diagnosis at a young age allowed me to access various early support programs such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. I was always drawn to nature as toddler, talking to myself with blades of grass, studying bark, and climbing trees. I rode my first horse at about the age of four, and I have loved them ever since. I learned that I was autistic at the age of eight. I remember seeing a poster on autism and I read the list and thought it sounded like me and my friends from primary school. I was part of a Life Skills Program that provided Computer Lab time during lunchtime specifically for autistic and neurodivergent individuals, so I got to know many fellow autistics. I asked my mother when I got home whether my friends were autistic, to which she truthfully answered “yes”. I then connected the dots and asked whether I was on the spectrum. She once again replied “yes”. I don’t remember thinking that much of it at the time but it became significant during my high school years. I believe it would have helped if I had come across other autistic people other than males, as I was the only non-male autistic at my school. It hadn’t occurred to me that autistic females and non-males existed!

How was school for you? Did you get the right supports?

I consider myself incredibly lucky with the amount of support I received during my schooling years. I am still in touch with a few of the integration aides I had during primary school. One in particular has become such a big support for me and has helped me through some really tough times, even after she left my primary school. Another one of my integration aides was neurodivergent herself with an autistic son, so she was incredibly patient, nurturing and understanding. I was bullied during year 6 and year 7 by neurotypical girls, which was quite difficult. I had, however, some amazing mentors at my school in the form of teachers and older students. My high school art teacher was brilliant in encouraging me to expand upon my techniques and try new things, and taught me how to use colour and introduced me to a variety of materials. My high school had an alternate learning program and the principal told me directly that I should take days off when things were getting overwhelming. With the help of my principal, who was neurodivergent himself, I was able to write up a card that allowed me to excuse myself for some quiet time when the classroom was too overloading for me. I wrote up my own Individual Learning Plan (ILP) and I truly felt listened to and respected at my school. My teachers were incredible in helping me through panic attacks and meltdowns, aiding me through a challenging period in which I was being bullied by a staff member at another setting. I will forever remember their understanding, patience, and kindness.

What are some challenges you have had to learn to cope with and navigate as an autistic person?

I have a few sensory issues – mainly sound, light, and movement sensitivity, and hyposensitivity to pain. This particularly has been a challenge when socialising and going to events, and over time I have learned to incorporate breaks in my schedules, bringing sensory aids such as earplugs and sunglasses to reduce the chance of sensory overload occurring. I also have auditory processing issues which have made it difficult for me to concentrate for long periods in a classroom without getting fatigued. Social issues and overload is something I still have to balance – even positive social situations that I enjoy can tire me out, so I have to space out my week accordingly with lots of down time. Being an empath, I tend to pick up on a lot of other people’s emotions and struggle with emotional regulation, so this is something I am working on managing. Misunderstanding is sometimes difficult but I try to educate others in a positive and peaceful way. Of course, the dreaded “You don’t look autistic” comes up quite a bit when I tell people I am on the spectrum.

Can you tell us a bit about your future study plans? What do you want to major in and what are your biggest education goals? (degrees, training, etc)

I am currently enrolled in a Speech Pathology course. I am hoping to major in Art and Music Therapy. It is my dream to incorporate these aspects into Animal Assisted Therapy work, particularly with neurodivergent individuals. I have an interest in rescuing and rehabilitating animals, and I hope to do this as well as train assistance dogs. I believe that there is power in joint rehabilitation and creating a healing environment for both animal and human.

We both share the same passion in supporting and mentoring younger autistic/neurodivergent learners. What was it that inspired you to become a mentor?

I wanted to give back to the community after I had some amazing autistic mentors in my life. I had started to feel abnormal and thought I was alone, until I met autistic adults who were all different but talented in their unique ways! They helped me so much, particularly in navigating high school and relationships, and I want other autistic individuals to experience the same. I remember how I finally felt belonging to a tribe, and I want younger people to experience this as well.

Can you tell us about your intense interests?

I love animals, but horses are my absolute favourites. I love spending time with them and I have really enjoyed researching their complex herd dynamics and emotions. Autism has become an intense interest of mine, and in my spare time I love reading autobiographies and blogs to learn more about neurodiversity and our autistic community. I love writing poems and I am currently trying to write my own music. I love exploring my ideas and sharing my perspective through art. Environmental advocacy and awareness is another one of my passions, and I have gone to a few climate rallies and been involved in an Environmental Action Group at my school. I am currently working on going zero waste and I have been vegan for about a year due to ethical and environmental concerns.

Like many people on the spectrum, you are also an animal empath. What are your favourite animals, and do you have any pets right now?

As I mentioned above, HORSES! I adore dogs as well. I am very passionate about sharing my love for them as many animals are misunderstood and treated horribly because of this. I feel a unique connection to them and I believe my autistic lens can help bridge the gap between human and animal understanding. Temple Grandin has been a huge inspiration for me in this regard. I currently do not have any pets as my dog passed a couple of years ago, but I am hoping to rescue a dog and have it as my assistance dog.

Drawing by Shadia Hancock

Who are your biggest supports and who inspires you?

My mother is definitely my biggest support and inspires me every day with her empathy, understanding, and compassion. My grandfather has also been a huge support throughout my life and has had his fair share of challenges. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer twice and has outlived his doctors who predicted he had months to live! He has taught me the importance of determination and positive mindset, and to follow your passions. He is always willing to learn and has urged me to continue on with my autism advocacy work. I am grateful to have understanding friends, both neurotypical and neurodivergent, who have made my high school journey that much easier.

There are a couple of autistic figures that I admire including Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Wenn Lawson, and Greta Thunberg. As animal welfare and environmental advocacy is one of my intense interests, Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey are incredible advocates I respect immensely who have significantly changed the way we view animals. Fossey ended up dying because of her phenomenal research, and I am continually amazed by her strength of character and the dedication she showed to her work. Linda Kohanov is someone I greatly admire and would love to meet one day due to her extensive research on horses and horse dynamics, and equine facilitated learning.

What are some of the other projects and organisations you are involved in/with?

I run my own business called Autism Actually, which is a consultancy and mentoring business. Its mission is to “instill a positive mindset in students, autistic individuals, parents, and staff members about autism through accepting and embracing the condition and empowering autistic individuals to follow their passions and recognise their full potential.” I am proud to be involved with The I CAN Network, which is an autistic-led not-for-profit organisation that aims to empower autistic individuals and encourage the community to embrace autism. I have started doing work with Yellow Ladybugs, a volunteer community group that creates social events for girls on the spectrum. They also run panels and education events for staff and parents about autistic girls and women. I have worked closely with staff from Holistic Equitation, which specialises in equine facilitated learning. Their clinics are designed to build capacity, leadership, empowerment and offer healing. We are hoping to start running events catered towards autistic individuals. I am currently working with them in creating equine facilitated learning projects for autistic individuals to help them with emotional awareness, social skills, and boundaries.

Like many other advocates in the autistic community, you also identify as an afab (assigned female at birth) non-binary person. What are your thoughts around the likelihood of many people on the autism spectrum being LGBTQIA+? When did you come to the realisation that you identify as a non-binary person rather than as a female?

Emerging studies have shown that there are higher rates of gender and sexual diversity in autistic people compared to the general population. With this in mind, it is vital that autistic individuals are given support during confusing periods such as adolescence and adulthood. I found out I was non-binary at age 16, when I saw the word gender-fluid being used. I first saw the term used and was introduced to the concept through reading about Ruby Rose’s experiences of being gender-fluid. I related to much of what she had to say, and I was relieved that being non-binary was a real thing and that I finally had a term to describe what I was feeling. I came out more publicly as non-binary in early 2018. I felt freedom as I have never related to females but I did not think I was a transgender male either.

How did you become an entrepreneur at such a young age? What has the process been like thus far?

During my time at high school, I had some trouble expressing my issues relating to my autism to some of my teachers. I decided to write an open letter to them explaining what autism means to me so they would understand how to assist me in the classroom. I ended up giving a professional development seminar with my autistic friend to my school teachers. It was such a huge success that my entrepreneurship teacher recommended I turn it into a business and go to other schools and talk about autism. It has been a valuable experience with its benefits and obstacles. Some of the benefits of running my own business are the flexible business hours, the ability to incorporate my own needs and down time, and working with select employees. The learning curves I have faced being self-employed are networking and reaching out to potential clients, which has often involved using the phone which, for reasons I have previously explained, is difficult due to my auditory processing issues. I have dealt with this by trying to write notes during the conversations and writing a follow-up email to clarify what was discussed and whether I processed everything correctly. Promoting my business has been a fascinating endeavour as it can be challenging predicting what form of marketing is the most effective. I try and stick to methods that cater towards my specific needs. My advertising is mainly online through written means and advertising by posting my business cards and flyers on local billboards.

What are some of the specific services and supports you offer? What subjects do you enjoy tutoring young people in the most?

I run workshops and presentations for staff, parents and students, as well as ones specifically for autistic individuals. I also offer them in conjunction with my parent who is also a teacher and is able to offer a variety of perspectives. I have started offering mentoring and tutoring services for autistic and neurodivergent individuals undergoing primary and secondary study. I am open to the idea of text conversations and online sessions to acknowledge the individual’s particular needs. I love tutoring students in English and creative writing, and I have a passion for science and my favourite science subject is Biology.

Have you done any speaking engagements and if so, where have you done them and how has your experience been? Do you like public speaking?

I have done multiple talks in a variety of environments such as primary schools, high schools, Tertiary institutes and Specialist schools. I uploaded an excerpt of a workshop I spoke at here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIuv2uZ7jp8

I am based in Australia, so the majority of the speaking engagements I have conducted have been for Australian organisations. I have helped run workshop sessions on autism in person and online at Teaching Learning Network. I recently spoke to students at Autism Teaching Institute on my autism journey and how to help autistic students in the classroom. I was a speaker at the online LGBTQIA+ Autistic and Proud session run by the I CAN Group, as well as their Horse Lovers Interest Group. The LGBTQIA+ Autistic and Proud seminar can be accessed for free here: https://tinyurl.com/y9yq9cjv

Do you have any writing or art projects on the go?

I love to write poetry so, when I am in a mood to write them, I record them and sometimes upload them online for others to view. I regularly make quotes and post them on my social media platforms. They are usually about advocacy and autism. I am currently working on two art projects; one is a portrait of a friend’s horse, and the other is an environmental advocacy work depicting the tragedy of coral bleaching and a silent plea for action.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

I see myself still heavily involved in the autism advocacy movement – I hope to be able to use my work in speech pathology to further help autistic and neurodivergent people. I am looking forward to meeting more amazing neurodivergent individuals and encouraging them [all] to advocate for themselves and perhaps help them through this journey. I would also love to learn more about neurodivergent conditions I do not have and expand my knowledge by hearing from more Actually Autistic individuals. Neurodiversity is beautiful because you can never stop learning!

What are your biggest hopes for the younger generations of autistic and neurodivergent people?

I wish for younger generations to be proud of their diversity, to not be afraid to be their wonderful selves. I hope that more people, ideally everyone, find the support they deserve so they can thrive. I want to see stereotypes crushed, and girls and gender diverse individuals on the spectrum receive recognition and personalised support. And, last but not least, how incredible would it be if programs for autistics were made and run by autistic and neurodivergent people? We are the future, and I am excited to see where our journeys take us.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us here. Any last thoughts? Where can readers find and connect with you online?

I want to tell you: Do not give up on your dreams. If you feel alone and friendless, I have been there too – but there is a whole tribe out there waiting for you, ready to embrace you with open arms. There are people out there who exist and who see you and love you just the way you are. This may not happen straight away, but they will always exist and be there. And guess what – there are neurotypicals who (gasp!) love you and your autism as well!

You can follow me on most social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. I have an Autism Actually Facebook Page and an art page called Sweet Melody art. You can find more information about me and Autism Actually at: https://www.autismactually.com.au/