#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 18: Robots

Portrait orientation fineliner pen drawing of 28 brightly coloured robots of various sizes, shapes and types, with a range of facial expressions and poses. This is not a ‘scene’ but a series of individual images - the only background is the page on which they have been drawn.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, by now, that the stereotype of autistic people as emotionless, empathy-devoid, monotonous-voiced beings with no inner life might have been chucked out of the window forever. But it still seems to persist, even as we work to change the narrative.

I am fully human. My brain is simply a different machine from that of a neurotypical person.

I do quite like robots, though.


[Image description: Portrait orientation fineliner pen drawing of 28 brightly coloured robots of various sizes, shapes and types, with a range of facial expressions and poses. This is not a ‘scene’ but a series of individual images – the only background is the page on which they have been drawn.]

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Are we REALLY that inflexible?

Less than a fortnight ago, I wrote about being “rigid”.

I explained about my need for schedules, plans, and organisational strategies. My need to prepare, and my alarm and anxiety in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.

It’s there in my pre-assessment mapping to the DSM-V guidelines, under my response to Criterion B2, exemplified by:

“Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal/non-verbal behavious (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns[…])”

But as always, things are never that simple.

I mean, yes, of course, I need to organise and structure my life in the face of chaos.

Yes, of course, I struggle with change.

Yes, of course, I find “decision fatigue” harder to deal with than your average neurotypical person, because I am overwhelmed when faced with choice.

But the fact is, by the time I come to make decisions of a personal nature, I’ve already had to make thousands and thousands of micro-decisions simply to negotiate life in a non-autistic world.

By the time I come to realise I’m going to have to employ a few time-management tools and get a little help with planning, prioritising, and bending my schedule to a shape that I can work with, I’m already bent out of shape myself.

I’m always bent out of shape.

This is the nature of being disabled. And it’s not my disability – my autism – that bends me out of shape. Autistic is my natural shape.

No. It’s this world that forces me to flex, bend, fold, and contort myself.

I have to flex, bend, fold, and contort my brain, my personality, my personhood, my humanity – my very being – to suit the world in which I find myself.

We talk of “reasonable adjustments” – those supports, changes and accommodations made to improve access and enable disabled people to live, study, and work in an abled environment.

And these help. They certainly do for me.

What we rarely talk about is how many adjustments disabled people have to make every single day, to make themselves acceptable to their abled family, friends, fellow students, teachers, colleagues and employers.

We’re continually making adjustments. Maybe even continuously so…

We talk of autistic people – women and girls in particular, but I think the same can be said of anyone who has an atypical autistic profile – as “social chameleons“.

I think it goes further. We’re social contortionists.

It isn’t simply that we wear a mask or assume a role. It isn’t simply that we continually swap and switch between many masks or roles.

We’re constantly bending ourselves out of our natural autistic shape. Flexing, bending, folding, contorting, and re-configuring ourselves the better to occupy a space that doesn’t accommodate our natural form.

We have to do it consciously.

And at times, it’s painful.

And by the time we’ve done all this, on top of everything else that our brains process every minute of every day, it’s no wonder we want to retreat to structure, control, routine, rigidity.

We simply haven’t any energy left to contend with any further bending of our reality.

As so often, in describing our thinking and our behaviour as “rigid”, autism is viewed through a neurotypical lens. We are compared to those around us, and found lacking.

We are not the default, and so, consideration is not given to all that we are contending with internally, simply in order to operate pseudo-successfully in the world in which we find ourselves.

I’m tired of being a contortionist.

I’m tired of being bent out of shape.

And I long for a world in which I can always feel free to assume my natural form.


[Featured image: Circus Contortionist, by ‘Kobra’. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence. Image shows a person wearing black-and-white skintight clothing with their spine flexed backwards to such a degree that their head is touching their buttocks, and their hands are grasping their calves from behind.]

Why I “can’t possibly be Autistic”, Reason #3: I’m not THAT rigid, right?

Over a decade ago, when I was working as a low-level administrator in a university student support unit, I remember a student who was a regular and frequent visitor to our service. He came in virtually every day. He spoke in a staccato, “mechanical”-sounding voice. He always wore the same choice of clothing: blue outdoor coat; dark tracksuit bottoms; white polo shirt. In all the time he was studying at that university, I never remember him wearing anything different.

I was, and am, nothing like him, right?

My mum used to work with a boy who ate Chicken McNuggets every day for lunch. Always the same number of pieces, heated to the same exact temperature. The local McDonald’s staff knew him well, and understood what he wanted, and needed.

I was, and am, nothing like him, right?

Whatever I watched, heard, or read about autism, I couldn’t relate to. I was nothing like these men and boys.

As a child, I never had visual schedules. I enjoyed back then, as I do now, a wide variety of tastes, textures, and types of food. I didn’t wear the same thing everyday; nor did I want to. My days were not uniform. The same thing didn’t happen every day. Nowadays, I get easily bored of too much of the same.

People like me can’t be autistic, right? We’re not that rigid, right?

…right?

But the reality is far more complicated, more nuanced, than it first appears. 

I remember the time when my secondary school switched to a fortnightly rather than a weekly timetable. The fact that I had to remind myself which week I was on; the fact that I couldn’t neatly draw out my timetable in my planner without having to devise a “system” to neatly display both timetable variations – these things bothered me immensely. I could never quite escape the vague sense of unease about the inelegance of the arrangement.

Then there’s my extreme (internal. I keep it well hidden) perturbation whenever my regular fitness instructor isn’t working and someone else is covering the class. To the point where, at the moment, I’m not doing my favourite weekly Body Max session because I know the instructor is recovering from surgery. I’ll just do my own workouts until I spot her exercising in the gym between classes, and can find out for certain that she’s back in charge. 

And then there’s the fact that (and I’ve quote-unquoted my dad on this before) drawing was “the only time I was ever truly spontaneous”. Everything else in my life had to be rigorously planned. Prepared for. Structured.

That’s still the case today. It’s why I struggle with keeping momentum at work during university vacation time, and why I often experience sudden bouts of acute depression when I have too much time on my hands if I’m on holiday.

The routine isn’t there. There are too many individual, on-the-fly, ad hoc decisions to be made. There’s not enough structure, and so I struggle to keep the chaos of the world around me at bay.

There are countless other examples of my need for rigidity. It’s ingrained.

Right now, I’m going through a horrendously uncertain period at work. Nothing about me personally, but the details of which I’d rather not go into here. Partly because I, and those around me, don’t actually know anything. But it’s preventing us doing properly all the things we should be doing as part of our regular jobs. We’re hamstrung. Stymied. 

Not only is my anxiety heightened because of so much uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability; the regular structure of my daily and weekly work has been disturbed.

So I’ve imposed my own structure.

I’ve blocked out every day of every week with repeated, regular chunks of specific types or topics of activity. I’ve thought about what I work best on when, and organised a “timetable” accordingly. What I may be doing in each time-chunk may vary, but knowing, for example, that most Mondays and Fridays I won’t have any meetings, that I deal with anything to do with our Salesforce database on a Wednesday afternoon, and that Tuesday and Thursday mornings are my designated times for dealing with difficult email correspondence, certainly takes a load off my beleaguered mind.

My context-based Google task lists fit neatly with this structure, and I try and plan meetings to fit in too – recognising, of course, that sometimes I will need to switch things around. But even with the understanding that some flexibility is needed, I have, at the very least, a framework. Everything’s not quite so gapingly uncertain.

More recently, I’ve been having a go at bullet journalling. It’s early days, but so far I’m loving it, and this analogue, paper-based system integrates surprisingly well with my digital organisational tools, whilst also thankfully taking me away from so much screen time. I’m sure I’ll write more about it at some point…

A fellow autistic woman at work talked to me about how being organised is not a natural trait but a coping mechanism, and I’m certain this is true of me too. Many of us have to work really, really hard at organising our work, our lives, and our minds, simply to keep our heads above water and not drown in a sea of too-much-information.

But the initial effort of introducing some structure is something worth doing.

Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, a little rigidity can be lifesaving.


[Featured image shows a screenshot of the first result of a Google search for a definition of the word “rigid”]

I’m not “gifted”.

[Author’s note: I’m kind of less happy with this article the more I reflect upon its subject matter. I fully acknowledge it’s not entirely credible from an ‘academic’ standpoint – I kind of didn’t get what “gifted” meant in technical/clinical terms. I’ve had a few conversations with folks more tapped into the research behind, and personal experience of, “giftedness”/asynchronous development/twice-exceptionality and so on, and I realise things aren’t as clearcut as I thought (and actually, there are ways in which I, myself, DO fit this profile). Still, this piece is mostly about emotional response. And in that respect, most of it still stands.]

[Trigger warning: discussion of ableism, and mention of applied behavioural analysis (ABA). Also a hefty dollop of snark, because, well, this topic brings that sort of thing out in me.]


A few weeks ago, a friend shared on Twitter a very annoying graphic she’d come across in a parenting group, featuring an acrostic using each letter of the word “Aspergers”. Now, I could write a whole series of posts about all the separate problems I have with this image, but my fellow autistic Tweeps have those things pretty well-covered, so I’ll just focus on one.

Gifted.

I’m not gifted. I’m bloody clever, certainly. I’ve always managed to succeed academically – for many years with comparably little effort, until it got harder in secondary school as I got older and life made things a little too complicated for me to easily focus and apply myself.

I’m not gifted. I am, however, bloody good at some stuff. Some of it is natural ability – I was drawing far more accurate depictions of human beings at the age of three than pretty much any other preschoolers I, my parents, or anyone in their extended familial and friendship network knew of. Even so, with anything I’m good at that I was naturally able at, I’ve worked hard to shape, hone, and nurture through conscious effort. Hard graft, if you will.

(Not always willingly. I had some natural talent at playing the trumpet but only got properly good at it through playing very regularly and frequently in orchestras and bands. Intentions to diligently practice at home fell victim to my procrastination demons. And as for the visual arts, well, my lifelong – until the age of sixteen – intention to pursue a career in such a field got thoroughly shat upon by a terrible GCSE Art experience that forever tainted that particular special interest of mine. You never forget a good teacher. Or a bad one.)

I’m not gifted. And neither am I a superhero.

I don’t actually mind using the notion of super powers to encourage autistic and other disabled or otherwise neurodivergent children to value, own, and be proud of the strengths that might come with their particular way of being. But for me, it’s not logical to call those strengths “super powers”.

Yes, I have awe-inspiring pattern-finding abilities, super-acute visual and auditory processing capabilities, and sensitivity to even the slightest touch. I can detect many things that others around me cannot see. My capacities for imagination and longterm memory are vivid, multisensory, and three-dimensional. These things feed into my attention to detail and research abilities, my capacity for creativity and ideas generation, and – when I’m not tired – make my view of the world an utterly beautiful one.

My reality would seem, to someone who isn’t autistic, an augmented reality.

But none of these things are super powers. They are just a simple fact that comes of having a brain with vastly more synaptic connections in some key areas, at the expense of “underdevelopment” in others. They just…are.

So when, on the very rare occasion that someone, in a condescending tone, tells me I’m “brave”, “inspiring”, or, indeed (and yes, it has actually happened), a “superhero”, I get pretty riled.

But back to giftedness.

This usually just means “being really good at something”. And one beef I have with the word “gifted” is that it implies that any strengths or abilities that we have are simply freakish aberrations; artifacts in a stream of codified disorder, deficit and deficiency. They can never simply be thought of as things we got good at through hard work, dedicated learning and application, or just natural strengths associated with our particular character, personality, or neurotype. Oh no. They’re “gifts”.

But another problem I have with the word, especially as it appears to be used on the image shared on Twitter but also more generally, is that it implies that unless an autistic person is “gifted” – blessed with some extraordinary “super powers” – they aren’t valid, and there’s no real point in their existing. (See also savant abilities.)

This is dangerous. Autistic people, in descriptions, are often reduced to a list of “symptoms” (I’ve bemoaned this before), and the narrative leads towards an implication that that’s all there is to us. Let’s not forget that Ivar Lovaas, the founder of that aversion-therapy-for-autistics that is applied behavioural analysis (ABA), considered autistic children not even to be fully-formed people. They had to be moulded into such.

But yeah, it’s okay for Aspies, because they’re “gifted”.

Neurotypicals get away with being ordinary or unremarkable. They are the default. And whilst there’s increasing pressure on so many people in post-industrial societies to strive for the best, and continually excel (a paradox if ever there was one), it’s still a darn sight easier to be average if you’re of the predominant neurotype.

But what if we framed it the other way round? Dr Luke Beardon does this very neatly. Neurotypicals have their impairments too, you know.

And just like we amazing, inspiring, courageous autistic and neurodivergent superheroes, neurotypicals have their very own “super powers”.

Look at you, with your ability to read and respond to a social situation within conscious effort! Aren’t you amazing! Your ability to cope with interruptions is so inspiring! I’m totally in awe of how you continue to be so unerringly polite in the face of awkward or even infuriating interactions with others! Your ability to multitask, and also to sit still, are utterly astounding!

You’re my hero!

The truth is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that some combinations of these tend to be pathologised; others do not.

And another truth is that someone of any neurotype can be unremarkable. Ordinary. Average. And that really is okay.

None of us should need to be “gifted” to be permitted to be ourselves…or even to exist.


[Featured image description: a bright green Moleskine notebook with elasticated strap, and ribbon bookmark just visible, laid flat against a black background. A pair of glasses is folded and laid on top of the book.]

We need to stop apologising.

The other day, I was attending another SEED workshop.  This time, the focus was on disability and social class (we’d already delved deep into race, gender and sexuality), and I was super-keen, as always, to get into the discussion. I felt I had plenty to say on this particular subject, and plenty I hoped to learn from others as well.

Unfortunately, the projection equipment in the training room was faulty. It had been crackling horribly during the previous workshop when we were watching a video, and one of the facilitators had brought her laptop out of the room and given me headphones so I could watch it separately from the rest of the group and avoid the painful noise. But this time, despite reassurances from the managers of the venue that the fault had been fixed, the speakers were crackling violently and excrutiatingly even when there was no audio being played. I couldn’t bear it. I announced that if the noise continued, I would have to leave the workshop altogether.

The only option was to power down the whole system, play videos using the small screen and tiny speakers of the laptop, and for the facilitators to read out presentation slide content, because the slides weren’t large enough for us to see.

And what did I do?

I apologised.

We’d all been given pre-reading on the social model of disability

We’d just watched a video on the social model of disability.

I’m well-versed in the concept of the social model of disability.

And yet, my automatic response to the situation was to apologise. My hypersensitivity to noise apparently meant it was “my fault” that nobody could watch the videos, or see the slides, on the large projection screen.

Other participants responded:

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Of course it’s not your fault!”

“Actually, I’m glad you complained anyway, because that noise was awful.”

The remembered trauma of the pain from the noise, and my anxiety over its unpredictability, meant I was rigid, tense, and nervous for the rest of the afternoon, even long after the source of the problem had been tackled. This had been difficult, make no mistake.

And yet still I felt embarrassed.

This kind of thing has got to stop.

These days, I’m far more “autistic” than I ever was. I’m more open in my stimming. I’ve made reference to some of the traits and features of my neurodiversity in some of the classes I teach. Sometimes I use it as a self-deprecating way of bringing levity to my delivery when things are going slightly awry – students really don’t mind a bit of humanity. You can make slip-ups, even when you’re a knowledgeable specialist (it’s far better to acknowledge your slip-ups before resuming your role as the expert – this is far more authentic than pretending you’re infallible when that’s evidently not the case).

Some of my “being more autistic” is because I’m more easily overwhelmed these days because my life is busier and more cognitively demanding than it ever used to be. And it’s true; I do seem to be more sensitive to noise, bright lights, and interruptions than I was a few years back.

But perhaps it’s simply that my self-awareness and acceptance of my autism means I’m more attuned to what bothers me, and less willing to tolerate it.

And yet I still apologise.

I have spent an entire lifetime apologising. And I’ve realised that this is something that isn’t unusual for autistic people, particularly those of us who are women, and who are adult-diagnosed. We’ve spent so long thinking we’re at fault because we didn’t realise that other people had access to an instruction manual we never received.

I apologise for misunderstanding people. I apologise for being rude. I apologise if I don’t understand a joke. I apologise if the lights are too bright, or a noise is bothering me and preventing me from concentrating.  I apologise for wanting a set of instructions in writing. I apologise for wanting a bit of extra help.

And it’s ridiculous.

The fact is, it wasn’t that my autism meant we couldn’t use the projection equipment. The projection equipment was faulty, thus preventing me from engaging with the content being delivered. That wasn’t my fault.

One of the other participants told me about an occasion when she’d been invited to co-present a conference paper with a student of hers. On hearing of the conference location, the student stated that they wouldn’t be able to participate because certain features of the venue put them at risk of an epileptic seizure.

Not being able to present wasn’t this student’s fault. It wasn’t their epilepsy that meant they couldn’t present. The reason they couldn’t take part was down to the lighting, fixtures and fittings of a building that was poorly designed without adequately considering the needs of all its users.

(The very same building, incidentally, tends to give me migraines if I’m in it for too long).

Those of us who are disabled need to stop apologising for being disabled. Because when something is inaccessible to us, it’s not us who are at fault.

Being entrenched in a medical view of disability means endlessly having to evidence one’s deficits, deficiencies, difficulties, and disadvantages. It’s so often the only way we can evidence our need for support, ‘reasonable adjustments’, or even just basic understanding from those around us. But it also means we’re perceived as less. And it means we perceive ourselves as less.

And so we apologise.

But we need to stop.

At the next SEED workshop, the facilitators will bring a portable projector and speakers, and bypass the venue’s equipment altogether.

And this will make it possible for me to participate without extreme discomfort. But it’ll also mean the other participants aren’t subjected to a noise which, whilst not painful for them, is certainly a nuisance, an interruption, and not especially conducive to learning.

Nobody loses out by such an adjustment being made.

Reasonable adjustments are a tip of the iceberg. The world could be built in such a way that no-one would be systematically disadvantaged. But that’s a long way off.

But in the meantime, we need to stop apologising.


[Featured image: heavy-duty grey carpeting in front of a set of clear automatic doors. The carpet (or mat) is covered by metal grating in a ‘striped’ layout. This type of carpeting is one of the pet hates I have of so many commercial, educational, or corporate environments, and makes my eyes go ‘funny’ Every. Bloody. Time.]