#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 30: April is nearly over, and I need to take a break (for a short while, at least).

Part of a lilac-painted living room with deep purple floor and white skirting boards. Mama Pineapple, a white femme-presenting person with red hair, wearing purple socks, blue leggings and a red, floral patterned tunic top, reclines on a brown leather sofa, one hand held over her forehead partially obscuring her face in a gesture of weariness. There are patterned cushions around her. Her other hand dangles down towards a white mug full of steaming coffee on the floor just in front of the sofa.A thought bubble above her reads “THANK F**K THAT’S OVER!”.

[Trigger warning: mention of suicide, murder, child abuse, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, gaslighting, social media abuse, “cure” therapies, ABA, ableism, neglect, mental illness.]


We’ve reached the end of April. The end of Autism “Awareness” Month. The end of Autism Acceptance Month.

And it’s been a hard one. I’ve kept my interaction with social media somewhat limited, but have still managed to encounter much that has upset me.

The thing is, “awareness” doesn’t stop after April.

All year round, every single day:

  • Somebody, somewhere, is working on a “cure” for something that isn’t even a disease or a problem.
  • An autistic adult is being told that their views are not valid because they’re “not autistic enough”, or “not like my child”.
  • Elsewhere, a non-verbal autistic person’s needs and views are being ignored because those around them presume them incapable of intelligent thought.
  • An autistic child is getting the feeling that they’re “broken” and not the child their parents wanted.
  • An autistic child is receiving stressful, traumatic conversion therapy to make them “normal” and remove their autistic “symptoms”.
  • An autistic child is becoming seriously ill through being forced to drink bleach or overdose on vitamin C to purge them of “toxins”.
  • Someone is talking, in all seriousness, about “vaccine damage”, and about autism being an “adverse effect” of vaccines.
  • A parent or caregiver is contemplating murder.
  • Somebody, somewhere is telling an autistic woman that they have no business calling themselves autistic because they, and others like them, have caused the diagnosis to be “dumbed down”.
  • Female autistics, autistics of colour, and queer, trans and/or non-binary autistics are being told to “stop making it all about them” as everybody needs support.
  • Somewhere, a media outlet is mocking autistic people and enforcing dangerous stereotypes.
  • A harmful meme is being spread on social media, and autistics are being told to “lighten up” and “get over it” as it’s just a harmless joke.
  • A healthcare professional is delivering an autism diagnosis to the parents of a child, and warning them of all the things that child will never do and explaining all the ways in which they are broken.
  • An advertising campaign is doing exactly the same in a series of commercials, flyers, and posters.
  • An “autism warrior mom” is lamenting her plight and desperately wishing that her child wasn’t such a burden.
  • Another parent is battling educators, healthcare providers, insurers and local authorities to get the support their child so desperately needs, but that is so difficult to come by.
  • An autistic teenager is contemplating suicide because they can’t stand the bullying any longer.
  • An autistic adult is staring at another job application form, wondering whether to disclose or not, how they’ll manage an interview and wondering whether this time they might finally get lucky after so much rejection.
  • Another autistic adult is trying to fend off the overwhelm and overload of working in an environment that’s uncomfortable, painful and overly-demanding of their senses and cognitive function.
  • Yet another is wondering how on Earth they’re going to get the financial support they need to enable them to live.
  • An ill-advised person in a position of power and influence is bemoaning the “autism epidemic” and wondering how on Earth it can be stopped; how autism can be put to an end.

And so much more. All over the world. Every day.

The scourge of “Awareness” never stops.

And so the work to promote Autism Acceptance must never stop. There is so much work to do.

Meanwhile, autistic people are living, loving, laughing, thinking, creating, caring, acting, performing, helping, supporting, advising, campaigning, sharing, uplifting, amplifying, celebrating, commiserating, learning, working, teaching, making, saving, rescuing, mentoring, encouraging, inventing, designing, innovating, suffering, shouting, crying.

Speaking.

And all the other things that humans do.

We’re here. It’s time to accept us, and appreciate us as a part of the world we, and you, all live in together.

Thank fuck April’s nearly over.

But the struggle never stops.

***

As for me, I’m going to have a bit of time off. My emotions, and my hyper empathy, have been, well, hyper, this month. I’ve been up, I’ve been down. And I’m pleased I’ve managed to post an entire month’s worth of images, every day, to do my bit to promote Autism Acceptance and Appreciation. But it’s cost me, as has seeing all I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen the half of it, believe me).

So next month, I’m not going to be around much. I might post the odd thing; but I might not. I’ll see how I feel.

May will be a month of self-care. God knows I need it. And my family need me. My loving husband and my beautiful children will be my focus this coming month. Plus work, and a couple of long-overdue projects that really need my attention.

I’m going to have a rest from blogging, just for a short while.

Ta-ra for now, chums!


[Image description: Part of a lilac-painted living room with deep purple floor and white skirting boards. Mama Pineapple, a white femme-presenting person with red hair, wearing purple socks, blue leggings and a red, floral patterned tunic top, reclines on a brown leather sofa, one hand held over her forehead partially obscuring her face in a gesture of weariness. There are patterned cushions around her. Her other hand dangles down towards a white mug full of steaming coffee on the floor just in front of the sofa.A thought bubble above her reads “THANK F**K THAT’S OVER!”.

I’m very sweary, and would normally quite happily not star out the swear words, but I’m hoping doing in the featured image so might help the circulation of this a bit.]

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.]

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]