Connecting

We’re nearly at the mid-point in January 2018, and I’m only just now writing my first post of the year. I didn’t even do an end-of-year retrospective to see out 2017.

Initially, I was reluctant to do so because the final few months felt so negative. My anxiety and stress levels during Autumn and early Winter of 2017, brought on by matters entirely outside of my control that are still yet to be resolved, had put an unpleasant slant on the entire year. Besides, a lot of people I know had a rough time that year. 2017 wasn’t something I wanted to celebrate.

And then curiosity got the better of me, and I watched the video Facebook had “made” for me to summarise my year. And what did it feature? My beautiful, happy children. Plus a handful of very positive posts about things I’d done to increase autism understanding and acceptance over the course of the year. My Times Higher Education article.  Professionally, I kicked ass.  In other ways, I merely got by, but that in itself was something to celebrate.

Of course, we often self-police our own social media profiles, personae and presence, airbrushing, sugar-coating and self-censoring to project the image we want the world to see. But still, I reflected back, and realised that, on a personal level, a lot of good stuff happened to me in 2017.

I still didn’t have time to do my big retrospective, and anyway, I’m often scornful of such things. They seem so contrived, and the point at which our calendar flips over is so arbitrarily set. But one of the biggest highlights for me about last year, and something I want to truly build upon and expand in this, was connecting.

Connecting with other people like me.

I spend so much of my time trying to “spot the autistic”. And I often forget that most people I’m surrounded by are not autistic. I still often assume, because it is my reality, that everyone experiences the world the way I do. It’s only recently that I realised just how different my reality is from that of the majority, and I’m still coming to terms with this. Maybe I never will come to terms with it entirely.

I never really forget that I’m autistic – why would I want to? It’s who I am – but in those moments when I’m jolted from a reverie and suddenly remember how much of a minority we are, I feel momentarily crestfallen. How can it be that there are so few people like me? How can I have spent so much of my life alone?

Not literally alone. The “atypical” autistic socialises, networks, interacts. She has close friends and family. She has social circles. She gets things wrong a lot, intellectualises every interaction, and internally she may struggle profoundly, but still she has many connections, and many of them are meaningful.

And it isn’t that I don’t still love my non-autistic friends and family. There is more than one way to find connections with others; more than one thing I can potentially have in common with another individual or group.

There is a lot of love in my world.

But we still need to connect with people who see the world as we do. I need this, at least.

From way before my formal identification (I’m moving away from “diagnosis” as a preferred term, folks), I was connecting with other autistics online. This was valuable. Insightful. And hugely helpful.

In 2017, I began to connect physically with other autistic people.

Not all autistics like actual physical contact – I mean, in this case, touch. I’m one of those who sometimes does in some circumstances at least, but I’m selective, and also responsive. With autists far more than the rest of the population, I can usually gauge pretty quickly whether a hug is going to work or not. Sometimes, the urge to hug is instantaneous, generous, and entirely mutual. And this is a wonderful thing. That deep pressure, that warmth. It’s beautiful.

But it isn’t necessary for meaningful connection.

The best thing about physically being around other autistics, is feeling able to be myself. Feeling able to be…autistic.

Imagine a world in which you are almost never allowed to sit, stand or move in a way that is natural to you. A world in which you are forever monitoring, checking, analysing and editing your behaviour in real-time. Forever conscious that the way you naturally want to behave – need to behave – in order to feel comfortable and well in your own mind and body, may not be acceptable to others, and thus may need modifying.

And this is all on top of potential difficulties with the processing of verbal and non-verbal language, and the need to cope with potential environmental distractions, information overload, or sensory overwhelm. It’s exhausting. This is the world of the “mildly” autistic.

When I’m with other autistic people, it isn’t like that. We understand each other, we accept each other, and we accommodate each other. I revel in being able to move, speak, and emote like an autistic person, and in seeing others do likewise, unchecked.

In the past year, I’ve met autistic people. In “real life”. I’ve met up with individuals. I went to a local PARC event in November 2017. And with another late-diagnosed female Aspie colleague, I’m in the process of setting up an informal peer support group for autistic staff at work – we’re currently a very small, select group and have met just once so far, but in time I hope this will grow.

In the meantime, the two of us who are organising the group also meet separately. We have coffee, or lunch, and we talk as friends.

It isn’t just autistic people, of course. There are other people with whom I can be myself, and these are predominantly other disabled people, and other people whose brains are wired somewhat differently from the default. My network of disabled and neurodivergent friends is growing, and whilst our challenges may vary, there is a mutual appreciation of the difficulties we each face, and recognition of each other’s intrinsic worth as people.

Somebody I know who is bipolar, and with whom I delivered a well-received conference workshop on neurodiversity back in September 2017, is one of very few people I’m comfortable having lengthy telephone conversations with.  We’re very different in the way we each see the world, but he accepts my weirdnesses, and I accept his. We celebrate these things. We check in with each other and support each other.

Alongside that gorgeous, proprioceptive loveliness, firm physical hugs release oxytocin. The “love hormone”. The deep pressure of physical contact, and this surge of love, is what made me love carrying my babies in slings, and makes me dread the time when my younger child is too big to sleep cuddled up on my chest.

But the surge of love and emotional well-being can come from many forms of connection.

Here’s to much more of it in 2018.


[Featured image: two people hugging, with one person facing towards the viewer. This person is light skinned with red hair and a purple top – their arms are around the shoulders of the person turned away from view, who is blonde haired, wearing a green top. The two people are surrounded by rainbow colours, radiating outwards.]

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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.]

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.]

Seeing ourselves

[Author’s note, 27 September 2017: since writing this post, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not quite as cis-het as I always assumed I was. But my because my gender identity and sexual/relationship orientations aren’t very easily definable, I don’t really TRY to define them. And the rest of this post still stands – I experience no gender dysphoria, in person I’m generally read as cis-het, and can’t be bothered with the hassle of quibbling about it. I have enough challenges having decided to be so out and proud about being autistic in my late 30s without further complicating matters.]

I’ve recenty embarked on a professional development programme at work, which my (UK) University runs as part of the US-based National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project on the Inclusive Curriculum, first developed 30 years ago.

I’m excited and also somewhat apprehensive about participating in this programme, and what it will entail. Certainly it’ll involve a lot of challenging of perceptions, self-scrutiny, and, I’m sure, a hell of a lot of learning. Along with the other participants, I’ll be exploring my own individual diversities and how they intersect, as well as thinking about those of the people around me, the people I work with, my students, and so on. I’m hoping that it’ll be both of use to me as a private individual, and also another valuable source of learning that I can put towards being a better teacher.

A single story

At our first SEED workshop this week just gone, we were shown the video of a TED talk by the novellist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on The Danger of a Single Story 

Those belonging to any marginalised class of people sitting outwith the dominant, power-holding group in sociey often find descriptions and depictions of themselves – as a class or group of people – to be reduced to one narrow, restricted narrative. That one single story is all that anyone ever sees, hears, or reads of that group.

If they even see, hear, or read any story at all.

Adichie gives many examples throughout her speech: writing stories as a little girl about British children drinking ginger beer, playing in the snow and talking about the weather, reflecting the stories she’d read as a child; her perception of her family’s houseboy as poor, but nothing beyond that; much later, of being told that a novel of hers was not an accurate representation of African life.

That last example: I’ve read accounts of similar experiences of autistic authors – their account of autism, directly informed by personal experience, is not seen as “authentic” because it doesn’t square with the dominant narrative – that single story that most people have seen, heard or read about autism and autistic people.

It can’t be true, because it’s not what we’ve come to expect.

There are lots of people out there who feel prejudice, contempt, disgust, or hatred towards disabled people. (And this is leaving aside the more casual, everyday “benevolent” ableism. Thank you for inspiring me! Well done for doing normal stuff despite being so horribly afflicted! How brave you are!). Many people do not see disabled people as people. And there seems to be a special type of stigma reserved for autistic people, and I believe it’s the single (false) story about “lack of empathy” that’s at the heart of this. If a person does not feel empathy, how can they engage with the human experiences of others? How can they truly be human?

Nowadays, as a self-aware autistic person who just so happens to experience hyper-empathy, this notion hits me, and hurts me, to the very core of my being. It’s one reason for my choosing to use identity-first language. To take ownership of the label for which so many people feel such contempt, fear and disgust. Because we’re all people by default. It’s a given.

I wrote in my last post of 2016 about how, despite being autistic, I’ve only come to this realisation that autistic people feel empathy in the past year.  And this is all because I’d been influenced by what I knew of autism, based on what I saw of autism in the media. My layperson’s limited knowledge. A single story.

Male. Middle class. Poor personal hygiene. Robotic. Difficult. Extremely fussy. Haters of everyone around them. No inner life. Either an uncommunicative, nonverbal headphone-wearing boy who alternates between scowling into the middle distance and lashing violently out at others, or a socially-inept, bowtie-wearing, humming middle-aged übernerd. The bane and burden of their exhausted, careworn parents’ lives. Robbers of their families’ energy, love, goodwill, and freedom. Tragedies. Impossible to live with, but incapable of looking after themselves. Their personhood lost to the scourge that is the disease of autism. I will hold my hands up and admit that I used to be horrified at the idea of autism, because I didn’t understand it.

I most certainly didn’t see myself.

When it was suggested to my husband and me that we should look into the possibility of having our daughter assessed for Autism Spectrum Disorder, I was alarmed. Once the idea had been planted in my mind, I even questioned whether my (highly intelligent, imaginative, creative, compassionate, kind, sociable, hugely funny) daughter had any inner life at all, because so much of her early speech was echolalia. If she couldn’t express herself in her own words, was there anything in there?

(Yes. I know. Please understand I don’t think this now).

It’s horrifying to think that the prevailing image of autism is so negative that even people like me – autistic people like me – don’t recognise it until we start delving more deeply and reading more widely. Over the course of doing research, reading blogs, and lurking on Twitter, I came to the realisation that there were people like me out there. And they were all autistic people.  It was only after reading these “unofficial” accounts – these other stories – that I saw myself.

I saw myself as autistic.

Still not the full story.

And – lo and behold! – both my daughter and I are now formally-diagnosed. And I’m so much happier because of this.

And, more recently, I have seen more people like myself in the media. Over recent months, I’ve seen a small flurry of articles in the press about the experiences of late-diagnosed autistic adults. Often, the focus is on the “phenomenon” of the late-discovering autistic mother, who only seeks a diagnosis after experiencing a series of lightbulb moments whilst researching her autistic child’s “condition”.

We’re a curious bunch, us adult-diagnosed autistics. On the one hand, many of us experience – until the point of diagnosis – a lifetime of apparent good fortune because we are not stigmatised by the “label” of being autistic. On the other, there are many ways we’ve been disadvantaged, let down, misunderstood, traumatised, and neglected by that very lack of a formal explanation for why we are the way we are. And we may not be judged for being autistic, but we are judged nevertheless because we make such a bad job of being neurotypical.

But then, there’s another thing. There’s the issue of privilege.

There are so many autistic people who are not visible; who are not portrayed or represented; whose stories are not told.

I’m doubly-disadvantaged in a patriarchal, neurotypical-dominant society by being both female and autistic. But one thing has struck me about so many of those recent articles. Almost all of the people portrayed are white, middle-class, cisgender, and (as far as I can gather from the narratives) heterosexual.

Male or female, they’re an awful lot like me.

My being female made me among those less likely to be diagnosed at all. And yet, the fact I have a diagnosis is due, in no small measures, to privilege. My mother’s educational background and professional qualifications enabled her to “spot” my daughter’s autism. I myself have had a decent education. I have ready access to the internet. I grew up in a financially-constrained but nevertheless stable, supportive middle class home. I’m white. I had resources, skills, and expertise at my disposal that enabled me to conduct thorough research and prepare a “case” for being referred for assessment. I was so thoroughly prepared it would have been hard to argue with me, but then, I’ve had a lot of professional experience at gathering evidence and mapping it against criteria – professional experience I wouldn’t have gained had I not been highly educated.

And doing research into something like autism – especially research of the informal kind, such as reading blogs – is a damned sight easier if you can readily find the stories of people who are like you. And, like it or not, I may be part of an underrepresented group of formally-diagnosed autistic people, but there are still more people like me – white, cisgender, heterosexual, often mothers – receiving a diagnosis than those autistics who are further marginalised. And we are therefore that teensy-weensy little bit (understatement alert!) more visible.

If we don’t see ourselves represented in any way, if the existence of people like ourselves is not acknowledged, then how can we truly understand our place, or our space, in society? And if we don’t see this, how the hell can other people see it?

There are white autistic people. There are autistic people of colour. There are male autistics, and female autistics. There are cisgender autistics, and there are oh-so-many autistic people whose gender identity falls somewhere under the transgender umbrella. There are straight autistics. Queer autistics. Autistic people who are otherwise abled in every conceivable sense, and autistic people who are multiply disabled.

And so often, so many autistic people remain invisible. Their stories are not seen, heard or read. And others like them don’t get to see themselves. In this Toast interview from March 2016, Neurotribes author Steve Silberman – a neurotypical person, but a fantastic ally and signal-booster – describes a telling conversation:

Recently, I was on a plane talking to a young black woman who worked in D.C. When I told her that I’d written a book about autism, she said, “Autism is a white-people thing, isn’t it?”

If you’re autistic, but you don’t see yourself in any of the available portrayals or representations of autism, how can you fully see yourself as an autistic person? How can you identify as an autistic person?

How can you seek diagnosis?

Get understanding? An explanation? Support? Access to services?

Being self-aware

People with privilege often talk over minority or marginalised groups.

Ableist parents and health or education professionals might talk over – and very loudly about – the nonverbal autistic person sitting right in front of them. Autistic adults often feel “talked over” online by neurotypical-run autism organisations and groups.

Health professionals and journalists speculate that transgender children “might be autistic” without being able to comprehend that the two things are not mutually exclusive, because they talk over the heads of, and fail to hear the stories of, #actuallyautistic trans adults.

In professional settings, women are criticised as “bossy”, “domineering”, or “nasty” for demanding even a fraction of the attention or recognition their male colleagues and counterparts get – and this situation is further compounded when colour, sexuality, and (dis)ability come into the picture.

One thing I’m a little nervous about, in attending the SEED workshops, is the potential for my autistic tendency to hog a conversation – to talk over others – to prevent other voices in the room from being heard; other stories being told. After all, I’m autistic and female, but in other respects I’m fully accustomed to being perceived as far less “other” than many. Other aspects of who I am put me in a position of relative power and privilege.

I’ve been informed that a timer will be used to allow everyone in the space equal time to contribute, which will test my anxiety levels. My brain’s conscious-social-interaction-analysis machine might well go into overdrive at times, and there might be moments when I feel exceedingly uncomfortable, and I will need to get out and get some air. But I believe all of this will be worth it for the potential learning that will take place.

Because it will be vital for me to hear other stories.

And at times the people who see, hear, or read the many and diverse stories of autistic people will be made to feel uncomfortable. They will be challenged. But they will need to be self-aware, and accept that discomfort, if it allows those stories to come through.

The more people like us – in all our complex, myriad forms – are visible, the more we can see ourselves. And the more the world can see us for the humans we truly are.

And our lives, identities, and experiences will no longer be reduced to a single story.

Inclusion: getting on with “just learning”

Eight years ago, a long time before I was officially diagnosed as autistic, I was a mature student studying full-time for a Masters degree. One of the best years of my life – a year of total immersion in learning, with minimal worldly distractions. A time of luxury, in many ways.

This meant, of course, an awful lot of reading, and occasionally, having to borrow books, using a SCONUL access card, from the libraries of other universities than my own. On one occasion, I forgot to return a book from another institution by the due date, and incurred a fine as a result (many universities no longer fine students for overdue books, but this was eight years ago).

On visiting the service desk to return the book and pay my penalty (once I’d belatedly realised my error), I mentioned that I was used to receiving email reminders from my home institution about book return dates, and so I’d expected this institution to do the same.

The staff member’s comment?

“Oh no, we can’t be expected to do that. Students need to be able to organise themselves and manage their lives. They need to keep track of what books they’ve borrowed.”

Now, I’m a person who experiences severe problems with executive dysfunction. I have great difficulty planning and organising, and an appalling working memory. I now know this to be part and parcel of my neurocognitive differences, but at the time I used to believe that, despite evidence to the contrary (a 2:1 in my undergraduate degree; more-or-less consistent full-time employment since graduating; being on track for a Distinction in my MSc), I was a bit stupid and lazy.

But the point is that, back then, as now, I needed reminders to keep me on track.

My brain already had far too much to process without having to remember extra minutiae like book return dates. Having decided to return the book, I had to go through an arduous process of making preparations for my journey to the other institution, working out how I’d get there, how much time I’d need, whereabouts in the library I’d need to go to return the book, “scripting” what I might need to say to the staff member and what they might say in response, and all the other, tediously, frustratingly granular but necessary details an autistic person tends to need to plan out in order to avoid nasty surprises (which mean even more exhausting mental processing!) or possible meltdown. All of this on top of knowing that my book was late back, and already worrying that someone else might be waiting for it.

But it wasn’t just about my own executive functioning issues.

I’d started my MSc not long after top-up fees had first been introduced in England for undergraduate degrees. Many students, then as now, were having to hold down jobs as well as studying, just to make ends meet. Added to that, those students with disabilities or chronic illnesses, those with parenting or caring responsibilities, commuting students, those with unstable home environments, financial worries, and many more. An awful lot of students had an awful lot of other things on their minds besides studying, and returning library books.

Cost and resourcing aside (and yes, I’ve always been aware these are an issue – I worked in student support prior to beginning my MSc), was it really such a mollycoddling, infantilising thing to introduce a system of email reminders?

I thought about all of this back then, without even realising at the time that I had a valid neurological reason for needing a little extra help with organising myself.

This wasn’t about making things “too easy”. This was about removing a barrier that, however seemingly trivial, might have got in the way of some students’ ability to just get down to the business of learning.

And the same goes for teaching.

There are certain things I’ve always done as a teacher (I teach enterprise and entrepreneurship skills to university students, by the way).

I have always been instinctively drawn towards workshop-style delivery methods: session structures in which presented content is broken up by interactive exercises (two hours of straight “lecturing” would bore me as much as it might some of my students); classroom layouts that allow me to move amongst my students as they work (appeasing my need for constant movement to keep me grounded and relaxed); activities that focus on the application of what is being taught (because it’s simply logical to teach what I teach in this way. My subject is practical. You can’t learn it without practising it and applying it).

I like plans. Session plans. Module outlines. I like to match up my resources with the activities I have planned. I like to estimate and allocate appropriate time durations to activities (factoring in time, of course, to “mop up” after any unforeseen technical hitches, late starts, or student-thrown curveballs). I like the activities I’m using to be fit for the purpose for which they’re being used. I was constructively aligning my learning outcomes, teaching activities and assessments before I even knew “constructive alignment” was a thing in learning and teaching.

And I like well-organised resources. Well-structured, well-written handouts; good variety of online resources in different formats (and the same information presented in a variety of different formats); effective use of colour. And, again, fit for purpose. It seems logical to me that, since people have a variety of learning styles (and that, also, they learn differently depending on the situation, and the subject they’re learning), it would be prudent to offer opportunities to respond to, and work with, such a variety.

Basically, I like to be in control. It takes a lot of planning and preparation, but once I’ve done that, I’m (usually) relaxed, confident, and ready to go. Effective design of learning experiences is just good teaching, but being systematic about it also allows you to think about your learners.

But I also like experimenting with my teaching, and trying out new approaches – especially if I can see a way in which they might solve some problems for either me or my students. Because solving the problems encountered by a few can often result in a better learning experience for everyone.

I’m open to working with technology, for example – as long as it fits what I’m trying to do, there’s a genuine way it might be helpful to my teaching, and any potential benefits aren’t completely outweighed by extra time and effort.

I’m writing this after spending much of today at a work seminar on lecture capture (making audio, and sometimes video, recordings of live lectures, synchronised with any display output from a computer). It’s not a technology I see as a natural fit with my style of teaching, because I don’t “lecture” (I am, however, exploring using personal capture software to record smaller chunks of material that I can make available to my students online).

But I can imagine its value, because I remember being an undiagnosed autistic undergraduate, sitting in lectures in which not even an overhead projector, let alone slides, was used (this was the late 90s/early noughties, folks, and I was studying an arts subject). I had to rely on listening to taught content delivered almost entirely through speech – a medium I process far less well than written or visual content. It was exhausting.

Having that lecture material available as recordings, being able to review it at a time that worked for me, digest it in smaller chunks, and give myself the opportunity to reflect upon it, would have been invaluable.

Making “reasonable adjustments” is not about dumbing down. Even with those adjustments in place, some learners (or employees) will still find learning (or working) a struggle because the world is not set up for them – they do not fit with the “default”. But making those adjustments can remove at least some of the barriers which get in the way of learning or working.

Most disabled students just want to learn their subject – the same as any of their abled peers. Most disabled working people just want to be able to do their job. I know I do. I’m aware of my difficulties every day. And so I need a number of “reasonable adjustments” to minimise the effect of those difficulties on my ability to do my job. That doesn’t take away the difficulties entirely. Far from it. Which is why many of us need so much downtime. Because just doing what everyone else does “naturally” takes so much energy and, in my case, mental processing power.

We’re having to work harder. All the time.

I’m not suggesting technology as a panacea. I need more than email reminders. I’ve spent years teaching myself various time-management and organisational approaches to bend my wayward executive function into shape. Many of my strategies work really well, most of the time. But there are still times when I, a 36-year-old professional person, need direct help from my line manager with prioritising and scheduling, because my brain has too many tabs open, and too many applications running. Sometimes, things fall down, or things slip through, and I need backup.

Sometimes, yes, I need a text message or an email reminder.

Students still need real human beings to scaffold their learning, facilitate their skills development, and support them in becoming learners who are as independent, and autonomous, as they can possibly be. But sometimes, people need backup, and sometimes, in teaching, technology can complement the human, if the human employs it well.

At least several times a week, I “keep it together” during the working day despite a battery of person-to-person interactions, triggery social media exchanges, unexpected occurrences, unforeseen problems, and multisensory information overload, only to arrive home and feel the need either to: a) go straight to bed to ward off an impending migraine; or b) shout unnecessarily at my gorgeous-but-noisy small children because my sensory tolerance levels are so low.

Like many autistic people, I have extreme reactions to too much information, because I take in so much of it at once, and I struggle to filter out the unimportant stuff.

But in today’s world, information overload can affect everyone. Our lives are just so bloody busy, and there’s just too much God-damned information.

Whilst we might wish the situation to be different, we must recognise that having nothing in the world to think or worry about other than your studies, is a luxury, and a privilege, that very few students have today. It would be arrogant and ignorant to assume otherwise.

If educators can ease that load a little and allow their learners to actually focus on learning, that surely can’t be a bad thing.

For all concerned.

[Image credit: Sam MacEntee]