Living a Great Life with Autism

calendarMay 10 2020

Charl Baillie wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was an adult. She faced many people telling her what she couldn’t do. Here, Charl tells how she ignored them all, went to university and has been doing her dream zoo keeping job for 30 years!

An image of Charl Baillie, 54, cuddling a red ruffed lemur. The lemur is licking her face.
Charl Baillie and her red-ruffed lemur friend, Andro.

Autism comes with limits. Or does it?

Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin with your story because it has so many twists and turns, so many ups and downs, and so many triumphs and disappointments. But that is the story of everyone and I’d like to focus on success and happiness for autistic people.

My name is Charl and I am 54 years old and have autism or, as I prefer to say it, I am autistic. I am a senior zookeeper, an amateur photographer and a keen astronomer.

An old photograph of a young girl, around 6 years old, petting a buffalo calf.
A young Charl with a buffalo calf

Life has not always been easy. I was the child who nobody could understand verbally. The child who would have to be locked in the classroom and would hide under my desk for the lesson. The child who became obsessed with things.

But strangely, I was also the undiagnosed child, the one who went under the radar and spent many hours in the doctor’s offices trying new drugs.

The diagnosis came later as an adult. That moment when the doctor tells you they want you to be tested and you have a little cry because all you have ever heard have been the limitations of autism.

But what I want to tell you is that it is all OK. That it doesn’t matter and that we all have a place.

beautiful image of a roaring tiger by Charl Baillie
Tiger by Charl Baillie

Employ us because WE ARE AWESOME!

Image of a teenaged Charl Baillie feeding a baby hippo out of a bucket. She is stroking the hippo as it eats.
Charl always knew what she wanted to do.
This little hippo was called Kiboko and she was an orphan from kruger national park

I always knew I was going to do what I wanted to do, and that is what I did. I studied and became a zookeeper and it turns out that I am a really good zookeeper!

There are several reasons for this, which I attribute to my autism.

Great attention to details, slightly obsessive tendencies (or as I like to think of it, passionate tendencies), and a real connection with animals; the ability to really see them, look at them, understand them and relate to them.

I’ve been a zookeeper for 30 years (yes, autistic people also have staying power!). I attribute my ability to keep a job to having had the opportunity to do what I want and follow my passions. whereas an autistic person can put up with the social aspect as long as the job is great, interesting and inspiring”.

Teenaged Charl Baillie holds a young chimpanzee.
Charl and a young chimp.

Photography is more than just a hobby

Image of a fox by Charl Baillie
Fox by Charl Baillie
Dog by Charl Baillie
Beautiful image of a red squirrel taken by Charl.
Red Squirrel by Charl Baillie
Lemur by Charl Baillie

Photography came much later and has now become my main hobby. It has been a way of expressing myself, of showing how I see animals through their photos and showing how I see beauty everywhere. I would truly recommend photography to anyone but particularly those who have challenges in life. Photography opens up new doors, gives confidence and builds new memories. Every chance I get, I am out with my camera and my beloved dog.

Astronomy also fascinates me

Astronomy has always been a great interest – it involves looking at and studying the seemingly impossible, yet strangely logical. It is science and it is beautiful. Another recommendation from someone who has got so much out of it.

Charl and her son, Tristan,
with Astronaut Michael Foale!

Do it your way!

I can’t give you links to amazing sites or put you in touch with amazing people who can give you support and stand behind you, as I do not have these things myself. All I can offer you is my story in the hope it may possibly inspire and the reassurance and certainty that we all have our place, out right to choose and our right to be happy.

When I was growing up, I was given so many can’ts… Can’t do maths – I went on to do university maths. Probably can’t get a decent job – I have been in one for 30 years.

Do it your way is all I can say.

My story in photos

The photographs included in this short piece include photographs of me as a child with animals that would always be such a huge part of my life. I was fortunate to have been born into a family of conservationists and grew up in Kenya.

I have also included some photographs of me during my zoo career as well as a couple of recent photos of me as a now 54 year old and a couple that I have taken.  

An image of a teenage Charl, with a macaque monkey sitting on her shoulder. Charl looks amused as it is grooming her hair.
Charl with Boku, a macaque that was rescued from a ship.

Find out more about autism from the Autism Society

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