Canberra student with autism proves her former teachers wrong

Kayla Sterchow, who has high-functioning autism and epilepsy, is studying at the University of Canberra.
Kayla Sterchow, who has high-functioning autism and epilepsy, is studying at the University of Canberra. Photo: Karleen Minney

University of Canberra student Kayla Sterchow had lots of reasons to celebrate on Thursday when she turned 20.

But she couldn't get her "traumatic" high school years in Illawarra out of her head.

Bullied by other students and kicked out of seven schools, Ms Sterchow was constantly told by teachers she "wouldn't get anywhere in life" because of her autism.

"All the schools I went to pretty much said to my mum I wouldn't get anywhere in life.....I'd just end up working at Greenacres or Flagstaff because of my autism – they even said I wouldn't finish high school," she said.

High school was meant to be a fresh start for Ms Sterchow, who was diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy as a baby.

In 2008 surgeons sliced open her brain and ended her extreme epileptic fits.

At the time she told Fairfax Media: "I'm looking forward to Year 7 because I want to be a leader ... I'm a lot happier and I make more friends now."

But "horrible years" were to follow.

"They didn't understand my autism and treated me horribly. They would suspend me every single day," Ms Sterchow said.

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"They just wouldn't want to deal with me when I got emotional because they didn't know how.

"One school in particular didn't include me in school activities, didn't let me go on excursions and didn't let me participate in mainstream subjects.

"A girl threatened to kill me in front of a teacher and the teacher just stood there and let her run home to her parents.

"My life was in danger and they just didn't care.

"It was getting worse and worse and I was getting more depressed by the day.

"Dapto High School was the only school that really treated me well because they had an autism support unit."

Ms Sterchow is now studying for a communications degree in media and public affairs and wants to help people on the autism spectrum.

"All my friends who have autism aren't like me. They are afraid to come out and say they have autism because they don't want to be stigmatised," she said.

"I want people to be more understanding of people on the spectrum. We are not that different to everyone else."

The Illawarra Mercury