Interview with Jamie Erak for World Autism Awareness Day

April 02, 2024
Questions by Ariel Wee, Advisor, Diversity Inclusion and Belonging

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I am 16 years old, and a third-year physics student in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. I am proudly autistic. I found out that I was autistic when I was 12.

I started at Curtin University when I was 14. I am enrolled in a Bachelor of Advanced Science, majoring in Physics. I am lucky in that I really enjoy learning physics and mathematics, so my interests align with my studies. I like going for walks and hiking. I also like to read, especially science fiction and fantasy books. I particularly like science fiction, which is probably not surprising. I especially like science fiction writers who can convey scientific knowledge in their stories.

How would you describe yourself as an autistic person?

Autism presents differently in different people. In my case, I have very strong interests in certain subjects, which I believe is quite common among autistic people. I also react strongly to sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or strong smells. I often fear miscommunications, as I struggle to express myself sometimes.

What was your experience in school?

For me, my schooling experience was not good. Back then, I did not know that I was autistic, in fact, I was misdiagnosed when I was 3 years old and told that I was not autistic. Being different from all the other kids also meant that many were not kind … I left when I was in Year 7.

I am sorry to hear that you had a tough time in school. Was there anyone who made a positive difference back then?

Mostly my parents. They tried really hard to help and to make things work. When I was in Year Five, at age 10, I met a tutor who taught me more advanced and interesting topics in mathematics and physics. Before then I liked physics, space and astronomy but I didn’t really like mathematics because I didn’t understand how they’re all connected. This tutor helped me to understand how beautiful mathematics is, and how it is inseparable from physics.

What happened after you left Year 7?

I then homeschooled for a few years before entering Curtin.

How did you find homeschooling?

I enjoyed homeschooling a lot because I was able to pursue my own interests, so everything I learned about was undertaken enthusiastically. I would teach myself just by reading and through project work. I liked it! It was also scary initially because I thought at the time that the only way to go to university was the traditional path of completing school. I didn’t know about other pathways. In the latter years of my homeschooling, I enrolled in units through Open Universities Australia. This helped me gain entry to the Bachelor of Multidisciplinary Science course at Curtin. Later, I was able to transfer from that into my current course in Advanced Science.

Are you studying full-time right now?

Yes. I started my university program full-time. My family and I were scared, and it was a bit of a shock at first after being at home for several years. I suppose after a few years, it’s just my life. I am very happy now and I am learning extraordinary things every day. All my studies are face-to-face. I really enjoy coming to campus to attend lectures in person to be able to ask questions and to be able to attend workshops and all the learning activities. I consider Curtin to be a safe haven.

How does this compare to your previous experience in a mainstream school?

I suppose for one thing lecturers are much less likely to shout than teachers in school!
Students are treated like adults and can leave if they want to.
Everyone’s very kind – that’s what makes it different.
I feel lucky to be surrounded by incredibly kind friends and lecturers.

Who supports your pastoral care (emotional and physical wellbeing) needs?

I have Viyona, a mentor I meet with once a week as part of the Curtin Specialist Mentoring Program (CSMP). When I first started, we would talk about things like where to find food and places to study on campus, and now we talk about many things. She’ll listen if I need to talk and give advice when I face challenges, which can be about my studies or life in general.  Her advice has been invaluable. The CSMP also runs a social group that meets weekly, though I ended up making a group of friends through my course. When I started the Advanced Science program in my second year, there were only four of us in Physics, so we all became friends quickly.

What challenges or barriers do you face at Curtin?

This varies from person to person, but many autistic people, including myself, struggle in high-pressure environments, especially those with a lot of sensory stimuli. I suppose you could say exams can be overwhelming for everyone. For autistic students, they can be especially challenging environments where every smell and sound can be a source of discomfort.

My Curtin Access Plan (CAP) has really helped me with this. Being able to sit exams in a comfortable environment and take rest breaks helps a lot! Another resource that has helped is the Equity Room in the Library. It is so valuable to have a quiet space to retreat. In my first year, especially, I would go there in between classes to study.

If you could travel back in time to speak to your Year 7 self, what advice would you give him?

I would tell myself that I made the right decision in leaving school. I would also tell myself that I am not alone and that there are many people who have faced similar difficulties.

What advice would you give to someone who is autistic and starting university?

I would say that it is very important to seek out people who understand you. As mentioned, I have a CSMP mentor and have been very lucky to be surrounded by incredibly kind friends and lecturers who make everything easier and help me to do well. My lecturers and unit co-ordinators have been understanding by implementing my CAP arrangements, and just by being available to talk to.

What else do you wish to say about autism?

I think autism is something to be proud of. There were many extraordinary people throughout history who were autistic, and there is strong evidence to suggest that people like Albert Einstein were autistic.

Just before I was diagnosed with autism, I was reading and learning about it. When I read that many autistic people find sounds and smells overwhelming, or face difficulties with communication, I would think “that’s me”! I suppose finding out that other people share my experiences – after thinking for a long time that they are not normal – made me really identify with being autistic. I am very proud to be part of this community.

For more information on programs and services that support individuals on the autism spectrum, please refer to the following resources.

Useful resources