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Blog - Emma Robdale

Can Autism Awareness be Counter-Productive?

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A is for autismRecently I attended a small talk on Autism Awareness. I took a seat around a large square table. While waiting for the speaker to arrive I chatted with a group of women; some told me that they had a daughter, son or brother on the spectrum and had come for advice. Others had come because it was necessary for their line of work, there were also people with just a general interest in the topic. All in all, they seemed a very well-meaning bunch.

The conference started and a lady with a beautiful Italian lilt to her voice introduced herself as Angela. She then gave an overview of the talk before directing a question to the audience:

“What do you think it means to be on the Autistic Spectrum?”

The audience, stunned that they had been asked to participate so soon, sipped at warm beverages. Angela leaned against her whiteboard and a nervous quiet crept upon the room.

“People with autism aren’t good at empathy.” The singular man in the audience spoke up, “They might not understand if someone’s upset or laugh when someone falls over.”

“Good!” Angela picked up a large pen and wrote ‘Lack of empathy’ on the whiteboard.

“My daughter’s Autistic,” A middle-aged lady in a warm looking jumper had dared to join, “People with Autism don’t lack empathy, they’re just slower at processing it.”

“Very good!” Angela waved her pen at the audience, “Anything else?”

A young woman with red curly hair raised a hand, “I read that people with Autism could actually be over-responsive, not under-responsive, and because they feel emotions so intensely, sometimes they cut off from them.”

“Brilliant! Another theory.” Angela nodded enthusiastically, “That some people on the spectrum are in fact over-responsive.”

The man who had first spoken tapped the table twice, “My brother’s on the spectrum. Me and him were in the garden one day. I told him I’d ended it with my wife, an’ his response was, ‘I don’t like change!’”

A laugh rippled through the crowd and after that a list of ‘Spectrum Symptoms’ quickly began accumulating. Angela’s pen moved fast: Lack of communication skills, Limited friendship circle, Easily upset/angered, Inflexible/dislike of change…. 

board

Though this list was not meant as a personal attack, as I saw it mount, I couldn’t help but feel targeted. Each new bullet point appeared to me as a politely worded barb:

Literal thinkers/Logical and meticulous = Boring 

Easily upset/angered, sometimes unpredictable = Dangerous 

Inappropriate and limited conversational topics = Annoying

Limited friendship circle = Unlikable

Reduced understanding of empathy = Uncaring 

Maybe I was being a tad sensitive, but, I felt as if the people around me were dictating a white-boarded wall of what they presumed I was incapable of. This made me all the more resolute to hide my AS (Autistic Spectrum) quality from them!

As the answers had mainly focused on weaknesses, Angela asked the audience if they could conceive of any ‘Autism Strengths’. I found the first list upsetting, but, I was in for a shock. Not only was the next list extremely short, but, I personally did not possess any of the suggested strengths:  Brilliant at Maths – No.  Amazing Memory – No. Logical and Organized – Definitely No. Amazing Savant Abilities? Amazing musical abilities?… NO NO NO. I was now beginning to feel as if I failed at being on the spectrum.

Angela looked up from the new list she was writing, “A lot of people on the spectrum do not possess incredible Autism abilities. It’s important to also think of more achievable goals.” At this point the talk moved onto possible job prospects for Autistic individuals and I was to discover that, if these people were to plan my career path, disappointment lay ahead….

Making Sandwiches – because of the repetitive processes and a need for routines.

Cleaning – because of an obsessive nature and less need for social interaction.

Security Guard – because of reduced need of social interaction.

Night-Shift Shelf-Stocker– because of a methodical mindset and a reduced need for social interaction.

Computer Programming/Data Input – because of a logical mindset and less need for social interaction.

Research Assistant – because of specific niche interests, and a lack of social interaction.

Architect – because of methodical/logical thinking and lack of social interaction.

The jobs suggested jumped from being associated with low qualifications and low salary expectations, to ones associated with extremely advanced and specific skills (with much higher salaries!). What about the vast amount of people on the Autistic Spectrum with ordinarily intelligent ambitions, skills and prospects?  What about the many people on the spectrum who enjoy working with people?! Personally the idea of working long shifts alone sounds torturous! And what about the large range of people on the spectrum who are highly creative and imaginative individuals?  My own interests involve acting, writing, painting, and psychology. I hope to eventually complete a PGCE so I can pursue a career in teaching.

I wanted to snatch the pen from Angela, scrub out the whiteboard, and write ….

What kind of jobs do Neurotypical individuals enjoy?  To which a good answer could be, ‘Neurotypical individuals enjoy a vast range of jobs dependent on their skills and personal interests.’

Instead of Pigeon-holing Autistic Spectrum individuals into certain types of job, how about focusing on how to make more working environments better suited to Autistic Spectrum Individuals; so that they can pursue careers dependent on their own unique interests? Though, in fairness to the list, I probably wouldn’t mind being a ‘Research Assistant’, and be paid to study topics I have an interest in.

After watching one short film following a young boy living with Autism (further perpetuating stereotypes that only male children exist on the spectrum!), Angela finally put down her pen. After flicking her long black hair over a shoulder, fixed us with hazel eyes,

“It’s important to remember that the Autistic Spectrum is a Spectrum. There are people with very mild Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, these people may not be diagnosed until they are in their thirties and may present very much like you or me.”

Though she had said this, it seemed that it had not crossed her mind that anyone at this talk was or could possibly be diagnosed with an AS quality, and after a two-hour discussion focusing mainly on negative attributes, this seemed like a rather flimsy disclaimer.

People queued to ask Angela questions and chatted, but I left without saying a word. I walked straight to the nearest Ladies Toilet and shut myself into a cubical feeling like a double-agent; I had managed to remain undetected as an Aspie and gleaned information on how Neurotypical individuals viewed the Autistic Spectrum!

At no point had I felt comfortable mentioning I had an AS quality, in fact the thought of doing so had made me feel quite panicky. I believed that if the women I had first chatted to had known, they would have had a degree of pity, or at best thought of me as an ‘oddity’. This is not how I expected to feel leaving an ‘Autism Awareness’ talk!

However, people had spoken very openly about their views and experiences of Autism. If they had believed their discussions could have been offensive, it may have caused a reluctance to speak. And this could have created a silence around the topic of Autism.

This type of mentality might ultimately lead to misconceptions being left unvoiced and unchallenged. I tried to keep in mind that many of the attributes discussed were more relevant to individuals affected by more prominent or typically disabling Autism qualities which I personally had no experience of.

But to me, it is important that talks on ‘Autism Awareness’ avoid stereotyping individuals on any level of the Spectrum. Equal attention must be given to the qualities of ‘High Functioning Autism’ and ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’, as focusing mainly on more prominent Autism attributes stigmatizes these individuals. It may leave them feeling as if they need to conceal real anxieties and difficulties their AS qualities cause them in case it is presumed they must also have stronger traits associated with Autism.

Neuro typical versus Autistic Spectrum sign

What displeased me most about the talk was that, by only focusing on perceived differences of Autistic individuals, the talk set up Autistic individuals as opposed to Neurotypical individuals. This dictated a sense of ‘Spectrum Otherness’. If I had declared I was on the spectrum, perversely, I felt as if people may stop being able to relate to me normally, because of the assumption my brain was inherently different to theirs.

An approach the talk could have taken would have been to look at similarities between attributes associated with Autistic spectrum individuals, and discussed if anyone in the audience had similar experiences, for example: How do you react under intense stress?  Have you ever had a panic attack? If so, how did it feel, and what caused it?  Have you ever had a migraine or headache? If so, how do you react/feel towards loud sounds and bright lights afterwards?

Then, from these discussions extrapolate relatable reasons for Spectrum Individual’s behaviours. This would have been more in line with the now popular, Sliding Spectrum views towards Autism; it is believed that many people who are not Autistic have behaviours or experiences associated with the Autistic spectrum. And I would hope that it is needless to say, people on the Autistic Spectrum can and do possess all the qualities that Neurotypical individuals have.

I mused over what kind of tone the talk would have taken if I had declared my own AS quality. Would the discussions have been more sensitive? Or, would people have resorted to awkward silences? Could people have empathized with my discomfort at lists comprised mainly of Autism weaknesses? I wondered if they realized, that, though I had an AS quality, I presented very much like themselves. That my ‘symptoms’ are not unchangeable, but dependent on stress, anxiety and mood. Individuals with OCD, depression, eating disorders and in fact many Neurotypical individuals could easily struggle in similar areas. It was this type of reasoning that compelled me to compile a list of my own….

Twenty Common Attributes of Neurotypical Individuals:

  1. Neurotypical individuals can process written and spoken information instantaneously to plan appropriate plans of action.
  2. Neurotypical individuals are confident and extrovertive in standard social situations.
  3. Neurotypical individuals quickly recognize when people are in mild or acute distress and comfort at suitable levels.
  4. Neurotypical individuals process emotions quickly and efficiently allowing them to react to everyday stressors and discomforts with minimal response.
  5. Neurotypical individuals speak at an appropriate pitch when excited or distressed.
  6. Neurotypical individuals have level-headed and rounded views on everyday topics.
  7. Neurotypical individuals accurately interpret changes of pitch and facial expression to pinpoint people’s emotions and moods.
  8. Neurotypical individuals have vast imaginations allowing them to conceive of  many different abstract and metaphysical concepts.
  9. Neurotypical individuals will choose politically correct and standardized conversational topics.
  10. Neurotypical individuals are happy to engage in small talk and never veer onto specific personal interests.
  11. Neurotypical individuals do not feel stress or anxiety within social environments and often attend large parties.
  12. Neurotypical individuals are happy to have sudden and unexpected changes to their routines.
  13. Neurotypical individuals do not become irritated when told to cease partaking in activities they enjoy.
  14. Neurotypical individuals do not need to break or rest when working long shifts.
  15. Neurotypical individuals enjoy loud sounds and thrive in noisy environments.
  16. Neurotypical individuals have highly expressive faces often displaying socially appropriate reactions instead of giving indication to personal thoughts/views.
  17. Neurotypical individuals enjoy all sensory experiences and have no preferences on fabrics they wear or smells they inhale.
  18. Neurotypical individuals gaze for extended periods into other people’s eyes without discomfort.
  19. Neurotypical individuals love team sports.
  20. Neurotypical individuals have appropriate empathetic responses regarding other Neurotypical individuals but have difficulty interpreting Spectrum individuals due to preconceptions that they are inherently different from themselves.

Note: It is important to remember that there is a wide range of Neurotypical individuals, and that they may not all adhere to all of the symptoms above; for example, some Neurotypical individuals may not enjoy large parties, but they may still have a love of team games.

Alternatively, though a Neurotypical individual may be good at recognising when someone is in distress, it is possible that they may not be able to work out how to comfort them at an appropriate level and in fact may not comfort the person at all. It is important to assess each Neurotypical individual on their own merit and only use the above as a guideline.

 

I hope you have enjoyed this post. It is my very first! Any feedback would be very much appreciated.
I would love to know if anyone has had any similar experiences?
And if you have suggestions to how Autism Awareness can be better addressed?

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Neil

An interesting article. It outlines the them and us approach of many people, which needs to be broken down in all aspects of disability, differences.