Inclusive sport key to belonging for people with autism

16 October 2020

Autism advocate and Essendon Football Club player Elise Muller tells Andrea Phillips from Special Olympics how sport saved her life, catapulting her from being ruthlessly bullied to winning multiple achievement and leadership awards.


AP: You have packed a staggering number of achievements into your 23 years – can you describe a typical day in your life to demonstrate how you juggle all your involvements?

EM: A typical day begins with taking care of my mental health and setting myself up for success – having ‘me time’, as I have experienced burnout. Now, I have clear goals and visions and everything I agree to do needs to align with a cause with which I identify.

Last year, I was spending 32 hours a week in rehabilitation from a football injury, studying and working full time, driving long distances to see clients whom I mentor. Coronavirus has been a blessing to an extent, as some of these things have gone online.

At the end of the day I arrive at training exhausted from the rest of the day’s activities, but I leave energised – my autism complements my training.


AP: Who are some of the people you credit for supporting and enabling you to reach your position as an influencer today?

EM: I had role models when I was 18 who helped me embrace my autism, including some in same-sex relationships.

Winning the 2015 Autism Spectrum Australia youth inspiration award also positioned me to advocate for people with autism. I was given a platform where people wanted to hear what I had to say about strategies to effect change.

I credit Shawn Stevenson, Participation and Sector Development Project Officer at Sport and Recreation Victoria, for bringing the voices of people with lived experience of autism to the forefront.

It’s so important that people in higher places believe in those they are supporting, rather than try to ‘help’ them – pick us for the team, employ us – because we are needed and we need to be included.


AP: What was important to you about contributing to Special Olympics Australia’s Autism Inclusion in Sport Webinar series?

EM: Special Olympics provides an avenue where people like me can play sport, be accepted, and have friends.

It was important to share my strategies for balancing my strengths and challenges as a person living with autism.

I wanted to open teachers’ eyes to learning opportunities, because sports in schools has great potential to be inclusive and safe for people with autism. We have a right to belong.

I also wanted to inspire other people with autism to share their stories and stop supressing their differences and trying to be accepted, because this can lead to mental health difficulties and even suicide.


“Sports in schools has great potential to be inclusive and safe for people with autism.”

AP: You provide one-on-one mentoring to people with autism who experience anxiety – what are some of the challenges and rewards that you have experienced in this role?

EM: I get exhausted holding a conversation with a neurotypical person, but speaking to someone with autism, I don’t need to work out if they are being sarcastic or not; I don’t need to drain myself in using eye contact – we all speak the same language.

In walking with someone on their journey, I get triggered a lot because I can relate to their feelings of exclusion and loneliness. The difference is that I can tell them what I’ve learnt and what I needed to hear. It is not a heroic thing to support someone with autism – it’s that person’s right to have connection.

“Half the disability is that we are the ones with autism, but we are expected to learn how to make ourselves accessible to everyone else.”

Half the disability is that we are the ones with autism, but we are expected to learn how to make ourselves accessible to everyone else – to talk in a socially acceptable way, to change the way we process. We internalise that, either by undergoing extensive therapy, by being disciplined, or by learning that we are lonely if we don’t.

The one thing that was harder than being bullied was being accepted for not being myself. That’s what taught me that I’m unwanted and made me suicidal.

We can ensure that everyone living with neurodiversity knows that they belong, and they don’t have to change to be accepted. It starts with parents. Instead of telling children, “stop staring”, say, “that’s Elise, how about you go and say hi? Ask if Elise wants to play with you”.

Change the way in which those children see, accept, and embrace what makes someone different, because in future, they will be the ones to decide whether a person with autism is granted a job interview and employed.


AP: You share your lived experience with autism publicly and at times it makes for uncomfortable listening, for example that you started self-harming aged four – what keeps you motivated to express yourself so openly?

EM: In some ways it’s healing. While a person’s experiences are taboo, they feel ashamed of their journey and think they are alone, and they are cut off from others who could offer support.

When I was younger, anxiety made my autism more obvious – people told me I wouldn’t get anywhere, and I wouldn’t have friends. Now I’ve grown and learnt to manage my anxiety, people question whether I have autism. The goal should be that autism doesn’t equal a disability, otherwise we are wasting people’s gifts.

I get traumatised each time I share, but I value enabling teachers and parents to gain greater understanding of how to change their practice to maintain accessible environments for people with autism.


AP: Where would you be without sport?

EM: Dead.

The reality is that I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for sport. The irony is that a lot of bullying stemmed from me wanting and needing to participate in sport.

It was the only platform where, instead of being just the person with special needs, I was needed. Instead of being told, “sit still”, I was embraced for what I could do through moving.

Sport is not just a game; it lets you learn and practice skills you need for life.

“The one thing that was harder than being bullied was being accepted for not being myself.”


AP: Now you’ve achieved your childhood aims to be independent, have friends, and be an elite athlete – you’ve mentioned that next in your sights is being for others the person that you needed when you were growing up. How do you picture that person and that role – what will you be and do? Did anyone fill that role for you?

EM: I want to help others achieve what they want, to make it possible. That means providing a safe place to practice different skills, providing hope, accepting them for who they are, and believing in who they want to be. My job is to be inspired and breathe life into their goal.

My mum always saw my strengths when I was growing up, but others didn’t, which hurt. While I acknowledge the impact of that, focussing on it isn’t beneficial. Looking forward is best.


AP: You have said: “Experiences come and go – you can change the way you look at them.” Do you have any practical tips or examples about how you have shifted your perspective in this way?

EM: Lots of work – difficult work.

Firstly, acknowledge what that experience meant for you, for example: “I’m not enough, I don’t belong, I’m weird, nobody likes me, people want me gone.”

Next, write it down, then separate that meaning from the facts, for example: “When I was 12, a bunch of 12-year-olds told me that they didn’t like me, and they wanted me dead. I made that mean that nobody likes me, and I don’t belong.”

Work out what rules you created to keep yourself safe, for example, “Never leave the house, don’t be yourself.”

Finally, challenge the rules with new experiences, instead of: “Don’t trust anyone,” try: “Maybe I will trust here.”

This takes away the power of self-programming that is no longer serving you.


AP: Do you think we are moving as a society towards a place where we stop labelling everything and everyone based on race, sexuality, and even neurodiversity? What could that be like?

EM: We are labelling more, and more people are being diagnosed with autism. How good would it be if we stopped following the medical model of the problem being with the person, and asked, “How do you want to be identified? What will help you meet success? What does a win for you mean right now?”


Click here to access Special Olympics Australia’s Autism Inclusion in Sport, Recreation and Physical Education webinar series.


If you need someone to talk to, call:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890
  • QLife on 1800 184 527



Combining the transformative power of sport and a holistic approach to athlete well-being enables Special Olympics Australia to support a better life for people with an intellectual disability.

Special Olympics Australia strives to ensure that everyone living with an intellectual disability can participate in sport. Our dedicated network of volunteers creates accessible sports training, coaching and competition opportunities that allow people with an intellectual disability to reach their personal best – in sport and in life.

We provide:

  • Weekly grassroots sporting, recreational, social and health activities in local communities around Australia.
  • An environment where people with an intellectual disability can develop physical fitness, build self-esteem, demonstrate courage, and make friends.
  • Competition pathways ranging from weekly club events, to regional, state, and national games, culminating in the Special Olympics World Games.