So, the dreaded “Autism whatever-you-call-it Day” has arrived. The day that, in theory, should be about autistic people and their needs and so on, but, from what I’ve gathered so far, seems not quite to work out that way (remember, I’m still really new to all this, and still learning, so I’m not going to go into detail about some of the more frightening aspects of the “light it up blue” campaign (please don’t light things up blue – many autistic people hate it, as they also hate the “puzzle piece” symbol), because I need to do further research and thinking before I’m confident enough to discuss some of the things I’ve been reading over the last few months – as far as the “politics” of autism are concerned, I’m very much still at the “listen and learn” stage).
However, as a newly-fledged autistic blogger, I eventually succumbed to the need to make some sort of statement about this day/week/month or whatever. I believe it was originally called Autism Awareness (and was then taken over by a particular organisation), but that the autistic community are now pushing it towards Autism Acceptance, and I’ve even seen several suggestions that it should be called Autism Appreciation! So, I’m going to look at awareness, acceptance, and appreciation, and consider just a few of the things I’d like to see more (or maybe less) of, as far as autism is concerned. This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor am I claiming to act on anyone else’s behalf, and where I’ve mentioned “most autistic people” I am acting, at this stage, only on the impressions I’ve received in the short time I’ve been part of the autistic community. I’m also conscious that the style is a bit rough, and it makes some generalisations for which I don’t currently have “hard” evidence, and that it also addresses non-autistic people rather heavily (if there is any element of “patronising” then it really isn’t intended, though I’m worried it might come over that way). Trying to make the thoughts into words is sometimes a little tricky – I am still very much a novice at this.
1. I’d like everyone to be aware, really properly aware, that most autistic people are ADULTS. Autism is a lifelong condition and it doesn’t magically stop when someone reaches a significant birthday. Yet the mainstream focus on autism seems to be almost universally geared towards children – many autistic adults are unsupported, have poor access to diagnostic facilities, and are finding life tough. Many of us went through years of struggles before we even knew we were autistic and are burnt out and traumatised by the experience, yet when we search for information we are faced with a barrage of articles about children. This is not to downplay the importance of care for autistic children and the fantastic job that many parents do in trying to understand and care for their kids, but today’s autistic children will become tomorrow’s autistic adults – and once they’re not cute any more or their parents are no longer around to look after them they will very likely continue to need support.
2. I’d like people to be aware that most autistic people prefer to be referred to as “autistic”, not as a “person with autism” (though not all, and it’s always wise to ask people how they like to identify themselves because it’s their choice). My own thought is that “With autism” implies that some version of the person exists “without autism”. But autism is not an “add-on” – you can’t remove it somehow – the only way to make an autistic person “non-autistic” is to murder them, and I’m seriously not in favour of that approach for very obvious reasons! I’d also like people to be aware that many autistic people really really hate “functioning labels”. I have a whole blog post to write, one day, about the use of “high-functioning”, “low-functioning”, “severe”, and “mild” and how utterly inappropriate these terms are to describe an autistic person – autism is a condition that presents in so many different ways in such a variety of people that dividing the autistic population up based on some arbitrary criteria and how they are perceived in the non-autistic world is both nonsensical, and, to many, deeply offensive.
3. I’d really really like ALL health professionals to be more aware of autism and the needs of autistic people. Really aware. So that nobody will ever show up at a GP surgery and be told they “can’t be autistic because they make eye contact” or “there’s no point diagnosing adults because there’s no support”. So that nobody will have to spend years fighting for their daughter to be diagnosed, and go through multiple misdiagnoses because the professionals don’t know what to look for. I spent 20 years in the mental health system – not one of the professionals I saw suggested that I might be autistic – it was left to some friends I met by accident through a couple of my interests to point it out to me, and I then had to battle through a diagnostic process which nearly killed me, and where I encountered a psychologist who clearly knew very little about autistic people, how to treat them, or what some of the characteristics of autism even are. Awareness of autism in the medical profession is still, at best, patchy.
1. Fully accepting autistic people and our ways is, for many people, going to be challenging, and those non-autistics (also called allistics) who lead the way as allies to their autistic friends and family will, to a significant extent, have to fight against their OWN neurologies. I know quite a lot about fighting one’s neurology – I’ve spent 40 years doing it – it isn’t easy. Worrying about “how things look” or “what people will think” has, sometimes, to be ditched when dealing with autistic people. Picture yourself in this situation: You’ve gone out to coffee with a hungry friend – that friend approaches the counter in dark sunglasses and orders their regular coffee and snack without looking at the barista, the snack is sold out, your friend starts to sweat and gets anxious and walks away from the counter, leaving you to choose an alternative snack, pay the bill, and deal with the barista. You get the coffee, take it over to the table, where your friend is sitting, rocking back and forth, and scrolling frantically through their phone. People on the other side of the shop are looking at your friend, who doesn’t thank you for the coffee and barely acknowledges your arrival. A gang of kids comes in and starts laughing at the two of you, your friend starts to wave their hands around, which makes you even more conspicuous, and then screams hysterically, jumps out of their seat, and runs out of the shop and up the road in tears, leaving you to sort out the resulting chaos. If you’re still cool at that point and totally accept that your friend’s behaviour is entirely beyond their control and is the result of their being autistic and you totally accept it all then I think you’re wonderful! And you’ve just had coffee with me on one of the days where I’ve made myself cope in the outside world when I needed to be somewhere, when the option just to curl up and stay at home wasn’t available.
2. Accepting autistic people doesn’t just mean accepting the visible either. I am one of those autistic people who visibly stims. I always have to some extent, and now I know how good for me it is I control it the absolute minimum possible – it’s easy to see. I wasn’t asked about repetitive movements at my assessment because there was no need – it was obvious! With me it’s a case of “love me, love my stimming” – simples!!! However, there are many autistic people who don’t visibly stim, who might be waggling their toes inside their shoes, or subtly pressing parts of themselves against something. There will be nothing to see, but they might be finding it really difficult to follow a conversation or cope with being downwind of someone wearing strong perfume. They might have changed their clothes 20 times before leaving home because they were having a bad sensory day. They might have spent the previous night in tears because their favourite blanket was in the washing machine or the shop had run out of the only thing they could possibly eat for breakfast. They might, themselves, be anxious about asking for adaptions and not be quite as brazen as I often am about such things (sometimes I’m very brazen, other times I find it more difficult). Accepting the invisible can be particularly challenging for many people, but to fully accept every autistic person it is essential – the words “but you don’t look autistic” can, I’ve read so many times, feel invalidating and hurtful. Personally, I’ve never had those words said to me (see the start of this paragraph, which probably explains why), but not every autistic person is like me, and questioning somebody’s identity based upon some kind of stereotype of what autistic people are supposed to “look like” is really not cool. Autistic people are varied in their looks and behaviour, just like everybody else!
3. Because autistic people have different ways of perceiving the world and quickly become overloaded, especially in certain environments and around people, we need a LOT of downtime. Accepting that your autistic friend is still your friend and still values you even though they’ve cancelled your meet-up yet again is tough, but is part of the acceptance. Sometimes we really do need to be alone and stare at the wall – maybe for several days. We often need to do things that seem, from an allistic, social, point of view, rude. I am much more likely to be able to cope with having dinner with you if my phone is on the table next to me and I take breaks from talking to you to play a game or retreat into cyberspace – this, I understand, is regarded as rude in many social circles. It is not rude – it is survival, it is coping with overload. Furthermore, for those of us who are sporadically nonverbal and have times when we can’t speak, such devices are our communication tools, and, often, knowing they are there and we can resort to typed communication provides us with sufficient security that we can actually get through a meal and contribute to the conversation because our anxiety levels are lower. Next time you see a child with an iPad in a restaurant, don’t automatically assume that it’s an example of “bad parenting” or similar – it might be the difference between that family being able to go out to lunch or not. We are not necessarily great communicators – we are unlikely to phone you spontaneously, or be very good at getting back to you quickly (sometimes sending an e-mail takes a lot of effort) and we might miss subtle allusions and misunderstand social codes and we often cope rather better if you talk to us in clear, uncluttered language, but we are nearly always doing the best we can – this means we can get exhausted very very quickly. Many of us struggle to keep our homes tidy and clean – if you visit, do not judge us by conventional standards, because we can’t always keep up in the way that might be expected. “Pushing on through” when we are finding things difficult is often, for us, NOT the answer, and might actively damage us (Note: I am aware that some of this doesn’t just apply to autistic people, and there are many others with other conditions who have similar struggles). We can’t operate with the same set of conventions that many other people can because we’re working on a different system with different energy levels.
1. Although we do need time and space, many autistic people really really want to participate in life. If you want to appreciate our enthusiasm and skills, then bear with us and KEEP INVITING US! Sometimes we will have the energy, and we will want to spend time with you and enjoy the things we have in common with you. Sometimes, even if we can’t make it, we will really value the invitation. Many of us have a lot to offer, and we’re happy to share our time and skills with you, even though we’re not often the greatest publicists on the planet. To fully appreciate autistic people takes time, and possibly a little more effort than is usual (believe me, we’ll be making as much effort as we possibly can – it goes both ways – many of us are doing our absolute damndest to fit into the world, even though it is incredibly difficult). Many autistic people have a great deal of knowledge about a great many things – we’re often prolific learners and when we’re interested in something, we can become VERY interested in it indeed – some autistic people can make great careers out of their interests and appreciating talents is just as important as supporting through the difficult bits. (I realise I’m using “we” here, without having consulted with any other person, but I hope you’ll forgive the generalisation based only on my observations thus far – I do make an attempt, from time to time, not to make all of this exclusively about me, because, lovely as it is to be appreciated, I’d really like all other autistic people to enjoy appreciation too). Don’t give up on autistic people because we need a bit of extra consideration – there are autistic people who never speak but write books, and there are autistic speakers who can present brilliantly but miss out on the opportunities for networking in the bar afterwards, and so on. Being autistic is an important part of an autistic person’s identity, yes, but so, often, is being an artist, musician, scientist, poet, writer, sportsperson, someone who cares for animals, and all manner of other things. Appreciate all this stuff for its own sake too! Never underestimate what is going on in our heads, even when it’s not immediately apparent from the outside.
2. If an autistic person shows up at your party, or comes to your event, or spends time with you, then appreciate this – they are likely to have put in a huge amount more effort to have shown up than most other people will have. This statement is in NO WAY intended to induce any sort of guilt or to stop you sending invitations (see above), but just to make you aware that what you see on the surface might not be the full story. I am currently at the stage where, in order to recover from any major time out in the world, I need two full days blank in my schedule where I am mainly alone, mainly in a dimly lit place, and free to stim for hours or watch the same film on repeat, or similar. But most people who see me out in the world will not know that. Most people who watched me play in a concert the other night will be unaware that I spent two full days with a blank diary earlier in the week in order to prepare and that I now have two further blank days in order to recover enough energy for next week’s commitments. Being autistic means, as I’ve already mentioned, getting more tired than most people who do the same stuff. Appreciating the effort made might often mean just being aware of that effort, and, when somebody turns down an offer of a post-gig drink, for example, don’t argue with them or push them, don’t feel slighted when they need to take time out or sit on their own during a tea break, or can’t contribute in quite the same way as everybody else – appreciate the effort that has gone into being there at all, and know that you are the recipient of massive amounts of energy because you, or your event, or whatever, is appreciated and valued by them.
3. And, lastly, appreciate what autistic people themselves have to say. There are lots of us around – we’re everywhere, and many of us have plenty to say for ourselves (as you’ve probably noticed) in the form of books, blogs, and so on. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re a varied bunch, and our opinions on things differ depending upon circumstances, background, and so on. We’re not some sort of bunch of “autistic clones” who are all exactly the same as each other, but we do, often, understand each other in ways that, perhaps, allistic people don’t – even the most highly qualified allistic autism researchers and those who care for autistic people do not experience things from the inside, although many of them do make a great contribution, but in a different way. If you want to know what it’s actually like to be autistic, then asking people who are autistic is, perhaps, a good place to start. Many of us are glad to be asked (though we might take a little time to respond, and, remember, our ways of communicating responses might be a little unconventional). I am, of course, all in favour of autistic appreciation – any time anybody wants to appreciate this particular autistic (and their blog), you’d be very welcome. Appreciation in the form of good lattes, wine, cheese, nice soap, and an endless supply of fuzzy tangles is particularly welcome!!! 😉
As to lighting anything up blue, please don’t. There are various other campaigns such as “light it up gold”, “red instead”, and even “tone it down taupe”, which are, I believe, initiated by the autistic community. I have gone for the colour orange at the top of this post – orange is reasonably close to red, gold, and taupe, and is also the complete opposite to blue on the colour wheel. Thought that might be appropriate!
My “awareness, acceptance, appreciation” duties now discharged as best I can on this day, this blog will now continue, quietly, to do whatever it does in its own way.