Jeanette Purkis: author, public speaker, autism advocate

22 April 2016

Courtney Lawler

Courtney Lawler is YWCA Canberra's Communication & Events Coordinator.

The 2016 She Leads Conference will be held on Tuesday 17 May at QT Canberra, with She Leads masterclasses to be held on Monday 16 May. Tickets
and program details are now available at

Open to all, the She Leads Conference brings women from a range of sectors, at all stages of their leadership journeys, together with Australia’s most inspiring women leaders. This year, our program explores the theme ‘Transform’ – focusing on stories of personal transformation and experiences from women leaders who are transforming their workplaces, industries and communities.

We had a chat to Jeanette Purkis, a speaker at the 2016 She Leads Conference. Jeanette is an author, public speaker, and Autism advocate who works to challenge public ideas about Autism and mental health. Jeanette is the author of three books, ‘Finding a Different Kind of Normal’, ‘The Wonderful World of Work’, and ‘The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum’, hosts a radio show for Autism advocacy group Positively Autistic, and facilitates a support group for women on the Autism spectrum in Canberra.Blog_Jeanette Purkis

Describe yourself in 30 words or less.

I am an Autism self-advocate. I had a horrific early life. I now help young people in similar circumstances to my younger self to avoid those sorts of horrors. It’s a good life.

What has been a significant moment that has transformed your career to date?

I had the incredible opportunity to deliver a presentation for TEDx Canberra in 2013. A few months later, my second book was published. Those two events catapulted me from a barely-known author into a sought after speaker with a huge reach.  I always think that you can’t have expectations for a career event – I like to think of myself putting my work into the world and letting it go where it will. Whenever I’ve tried to force outcomes it would always just fizz out and I’d feel frustrated. I actually have more requests for speaking and writing work than I can manage now. I have to say ‘no’ to a lot of things, but I always try to give the person requesting my services the name of a colleague who might want the work.

What is a book that has influenced your leadership journey?

I know this probably sounds a bit tacky – but the book that has most influenced my journey was one by me: my first book, an autobiography, called ‘Finding a Different Kind of Normal’. I wrote that book in 2005 when I was transitioning from a disadvantaged person, receiving the disability pension and living in public housing, to where I am now. I had been working for years to improve my life and then I met Autistic author Donna Williams. Donna became my mentor and gave some tips around writing my story. The manuscript was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. Within three months of the book’s release I had applied for graduate roles in the public service. A year later I moved to Canberra and started work with the public service and moved into this leadership journey I am on now.

How does having women in leadership transform our community?

I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of amazing, accomplished, and supportive women. I think it is so important for women at the start of their journey through adulthood and entering the workforce – when they’re becoming who they will be – to have strong female role models. It is important for role models to be aware of that responsibility. There are some areas which are not known for the participation of women, particularly things like executive leadership. Every woman who inhabits such a role is setting an example for other women, and giving hope that we can achieve that too. When I was a child there were virtually no women in a huge range of fields. My cousin studied engineering in the 1980s and was one of only three female students in a class of more than 150. I remember at the time thinking how amazing she was to do that. It is always important to think about what impact our work is having on others and to try and ensure we are setting a positive example.

How do you be brave/resilient in situations where you feel uncomfortable?

I have some significant health issues. In addition to my Autism, I have schizophrenia. I spend a lot of my life struggling with my illness and with others’ attitudes to my Autistic ‘quirks.’ I long ago realised that if I waited until I was ‘better’ I would never achieve anything. I want a better world for people with similar issues to me – so I am very driven and motivated, regardless of whatever difficulty I am having. I draw on support from others, which helps, and I am now 41 – so I have been through lots of challenges. If you want them to, challenges and adversity are actually very handy tools to build resilience. In my experience, the more difficulties you get through, the more resilient you can become.

Jeanette Purkis will be a panel speaker at the 2016 She Leads Conference. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Register to attend the conference by visiting the She Leads website, and follow the conference online on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

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