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July 2024
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Fitting In As An Autistic Speaker

How my club became my university and happy place.

By Jolene Stockman, DTM

Jolene Stockman smiles in red shirt and blue jacket outsideJolene Stockman
2020 Folio award winner logo

In 1997, a group of strangers met at 7 a.m. one day in a McDonald’s restaurant in New Plymouth, a city in New Zealand. There was an artist, a nurse, a bank manager, a police officer, a retiree and a girl with blue hair. We didn’t know it yet, but we were the founding members of Ngāmotu Breakfast Toastmasters, a club that would remain active 20 years later and took me from school kid with selective mutism to Distinguished Toastmaster and TEDx speaker.

I was 17, and the blue hair came with an eyebrow piercing and a need to find my place in the world. Toastmasters was the perfect act of rebellion—all the adrenaline-pumping, death-defying thrills of facing your fears without the helmet, harness or cancer risk. The club kicked off as a Speechcraft course, eight weeks of scary-fun mini-meetings during which I took both speaking and leadership roles. By the end, we were bonded like disaster survivors: We had been through something together, and we were different people. But it didn’t feel like the end,so we made it a beginning.

Club founder and visionary Leo Baxendale, DTM, was at the helm. The quintessential Toastmaster, Leo was cool, calm and meticulous. We could scarcely believe the tales of his own initial speaking fears. This taught me the power of a personal story: When you share your story, you blaze a trail for others to follow. Leo gave us the inspiration, insight and the tools to take ownership of the club. He led us, but he also stood back and let us take the lead.

For me, school had been tough. I loved the work; book learning came easy, but the social spiderwebs and sensory chaos got to me. An autism diagnosis many years later would explain all this and more. I left as soon as I could, and the blue-hair-public-speaking-life crisis soon followed. If I’d known I was tangata whaitakiwātanga (Maori for “an autistic person”), would I have joined Toastmasters? Probably not. Was joining the best decision I ever made? Definitely.

“We learn to live with a level of discomfort that makes growth possible, and that alone will change your life.”

Toastmasters was my university; I fit. I was surrounded by like-minded peers, acknowledged and challenged. I built my confidence, qualifications and connections. I built my life. Because here’s the secret: No matter their ages, job titles or skill levels, the members of a Toastmasters club are all similar, in my experience: scared, vulnerable and determined to be better.

We all know how malleable a comfort zone can be. One minute you’re scared to walk into a club meeting and eight weeks later, you’re chairing a speech contest. The months fly by and you’re completing manuals and mentoring. As we grow, we push out further, looking for the edges. We learn to live with a level of discomfort that makes growth possible, and that alone will change your life.

In 2018, I went public with my diagnosis in a TEDx Talk. Because of Toastmasters, I was comfortable with crafting, and preparing for, a presentation; I was used to the waves of nausea and pounding adrenaline. Most importantly, when my feet hit the big red TEDx dot, it was because of Toastmasters that I was able to do what’s truly needed: let go of the prep and paranoia and be completely present.

I slept for five days after the talk. The combination of public speaking, vulnerability, sensory overload and fear was exhausting. But I was proud. People laughed at my jokes; and they cried. I still receive incredible messages from people who say they recognize themselves or a loved one up onstage with me. Now I have even more opportunities to speak, which will help me increase understanding and optimism about autism.

I am so grateful to Toastmasters for helping me find the courage to speak from the podium and from my heart. Everything I’ve learned has helped me become not someone else but more of who I really am.

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