To celebrate National Youth Week, SBS launched a competition inviting 14- to 20-year-olds to submit a video pitch about their identity, the prize, a chance to have their short film on air. The response was overwhelming with many inspiring entries from across the nation. Five finalists were invited to attend a residential storytelling workshop in Melbourne, and with the help of SBS and the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) produced a short film about their story.

Winner Caitlin Gerken, 18, a fashion designer on the Autism Spectrum spends a lot of time trying to figure out if she sees the world the same way other people do. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Caitlin spends a lot of time trying to figure out whether she sees the world in the same way other people do. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Caitlin says she’s got pretty fond memories of her childhood and at primary school. She didn’t struggle academically, she was great at maths and had a fun group of friends. Being on the Autism Spectrum didn’t define her, and life was pretty straightforward.

Her family lived in Melbourne until she was 11, when her dad’s promotion at work led them to Western Australia.

She didn’t want to move, and the next few years, her early teen years, were hard. As they often are.

Being on the Autism Spectrum started to affect Caitlin’s day-to-day life when she got into high school, a time when identity starts to become a big thing for everyone, let alone those whose are written out of the mainstream.

Where there is invisibility, there is often misunderstanding. Over the past few years, the UK’s National Autistic Society has commissioned research into public awareness levels around Autism. They found that while most people know about autism, many don’t have a thorough understanding of the condition. Many people believe it only affects children, while for others the ‘Rain Man’ myth - that those on the spectrum have super-human abilities with numbers and facts – lives on. The research revealed that people didn’t understand that autism is relatively prevalent and that those on the spectrum often have a different experience of the world when it comes to senses and perception.

“I’m on the Autism Spectrum but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid or unemotional or a robot.”

Anyone who’s spent more than two minutes with Caitlin would most likely tell you there’s nothing unemotional, unintelligent or robot-like about her.

Caitlin’s also passionate about the ways that gender and autism intersect. She says that when most people are asked to imagine someone on the spectrum, they’ll typically picture a boy. While visibility of people on the spectrum is generally low, it’s especially low for girls.

Caitlin’s also passionate about the ways that gender and autism intersect.

“There are plenty of representations of people experiencing mental health issues out there, but mostly they’re the villains in Stephen King novels. Mental illness is often used to explain villains’ behaviour. But the only character that I can think of that might be on the spectrum is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and he’s not exactly the image you’d want to compare yourself to.

“He’s arrogant and chronically self-centred; he’s just not likeable.”

One of the main reasons Caitlin was drawn to the SBS and FYA film competition was that she wanted to put something different in front of people to challenge their ideas of Autism.

She says she drew inspiration for her film from an experiment called The Chinese Room. The Chinese Room challenges what’s known as the ‘Strong Al Theory’, which is essentially the idea that a computer can have a mind or conscience in the same way that humans can. What the experiment suggests is that even if a computer can receive and interpret Chinese, it doesn’t necessarily mean the computer itself understands the language or the nature of the conversation.

The idea of the Chinese Room reassures Caitlin a little. She says that when she hears Autism described by those who don’t really understand it, she feels, for a moment, as though perhaps she’s like the computer in the room; able to translate information into an appropriate human interaction but never able to engage in a deeper way.

She now knows that isn’t true and that her way of seeing the world isn’t better or worse or wrong, it’s just different. She’s on a different spectrum.

Caitlin is just finding her way in life, and her own way to express herself. She’s a thinker, a model, a fashion design student, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a writer, a day-dreamer, a cat lover, a tea drinker.

... And now, a filmmaker.

“It’s like you’re sending a bit of yourself out there and connecting with other people and hoping they get something out of it. I’m hoping that it’s not only people on the Autism Spectrum that can connect with my film.

“Really, it’s just for anyone who feels that they don’t see the world in the same way that other people do. I hope it makes those people feel like they’re not alone.”

Words by: Brianna Davidson
Mentor Director: Pete Grayson
Mentor Cinematographer: Charles Alexander
Mentor Producer: Leonie Quayle

For further information about Autism contact Aspect on 1800 ASPECT or autismspectrum.org.au