“Until everyone understands” proclaimed the slogan on the front of the conference pack for the National Autistic Society’s one-day conference on Autism and Mental Health.
I sat, during the afternoon tea break of this conference, which I’ve already described in some detail in My Conference Day and Content Report, and pondered exactly who “everyone” was, and, perhaps more crucially, exactly WHAT everyone would, ideally, understand about autism and autistic people. My experience, at a conference supposedly designed specifically to promote understanding about autism and autistic people had indicated that understanding was still distinctly lacking!
First off, there were the practical arrangements at the conference itself as far as autistic people attending were concerned. The worries caused by the initial e-mail about the parking were just the start of a really stressful and difficult conference that seemed to have almost ignored the access needs of the very people it was supposedly advocating for. Being forced to sit in really close proximity to strangers who were wearing non sensory-friendly clothing was absolutely horrible for me, and my request for an end seat was given hardly a thought. Furthermore, no allowance was made for those of us who struggle to sit “normally” on chairs and cope by rocking or pressure stimming with our legs folded under us. There was also no area available for those of us who might happily have spent the day sitting on the floor. Another autistic blogger who was at the conference and blogged about it afterwards observed that some delegates were strongly perfumed – although my own sensory sensitivity to perfume is relatively low, some autistic people find strong scents absolutely unbearable.
I had already compensated for lighting and sound issues by wearing sunglasses and earplugs (the onus was entirely on me to take care of myself this way) and the impossibility of even knowing where the quiet room was without any sort of map or plan in the conference pack meant that I never even located it. Someone online said there was a sign in the foyer, but getting into the foyer any time after the start of the conference was, for me, impossible, owing to the sheer number of people crammed into such a small space. Similarly, the instructions for splitting into streams were only given in spoken instructions, which I struggle to keep in my head – I never did work out where Stream B took place, and had I been hoping to attend that stream would have been really grateful for a map showing where that session was located.
And, of course, it was the issue with the foyer that prevented me from accessing food, drink, or toilet for the whole day. In order to have accessed any of these I’d have needed a carer, but there was no provision for one to attend with me unless they also paid the conference fee. As an autistic adult (and, indeed as a person on low income) I was entitled to a “reduced” fee for the day (including, presumably, the cost of the food and drink I was unable to access), but it was still sufficiently high compared to my income that I thought long and hard before signing away what was, for me, a large amount of money (you can maybe gather by now that I really am keen to learn and to get information, as I spent a very large slice of my monthly income to spend a day in quite significant discomfort and you might well ask why I would do such a thing – I hope I’ll answer that question later). Furthermore, the displays of books that I would have liked to have browsed were also in the foyer and therefore inaccessible – it’s little wonder that I do most of my book shopping on Amazon these days!
I was, to an extent, prepared for many of the difficulties I encountered throughout the day. Although I have not been to large conferences for a long time (I believe I last wrote a conference report around 20 years ago), I know that the logistics of organizing a large conference are not straightforward (and even less so when the space booked for the conference was quite so tight as it turned out to be). I also knew that I was, to an extent, entering a world that would be alien for me. It was obvious that the registration form had not been designed with autistic people in mind – not only was the pricing structure unclear as far as autistic adults were concerned, but the drop-down box forced me to use “person first language” and describe myself as a “person with autism”. I have been part of the autistic community for considerably less than a year and in that time it has become abundantly clear that, like me, the majority of autistic people prefer to refer to themselves as “autistic” and not “with autism” (which somehow implies that autism is an add-on). I’ve heard “professionals” say that “person with autism” emphasizes that autistic people are people and is therefore, somehow “better”. To be brutally honest, if someone needs reminding that we autistics are people, then the problem lies with them!
However, there was a really bright moment in the day when Lorraine MacAlister was discussing the support programme Teen Life at the end of the lunch break. MacAlister explicitly stated that the language of the programme would refer to participants as autistic teens, having taken advice from autistic people themselves! That was the moment that made me say YES! to myself. Somebody in the NAS is listening. Somebody IS understanding and believing autistic people. This is progress! Yay!!!
It was also obvious from the list of delegates attached to the final conference instructions e-mail that as a mentally ill autistic adult I would be in the minority (at a conference about autism and mental health, yes, I know – the irony is not lost on me) and that most of the delegates had described themselves as teachers, carers, parents, and so on. I’d be interested to know how many autistic people attended (I knew there were several through my contacts on facebook, and I subsequently discovered on twitter that there others who’d been there), although I do absolutely recognize that educating those who are not autistic is a really important part of the NAS’s work – it’s just a shame this education cannot extend to showing non-autistic delegates how an autistic-friendly event could be run, and didn’t include education on, for example, not wearing strong perfumes!
And so we come to the speakers. Like with the logistics I was prepared to encounter tough material (if I’d been expecting fairy stories then I was in the wrong place), and I’d read and absorbed enough information about the keynote speaker to expect that there might be some challenging aspects to his presentation. However, I was here this time to see (and hear) for myself rather than to read the reports of others and I started out with as open a mind as I could.
From the outset it was obvious that Tony Attwood is supremely skilled in the art of rhetoric and is a slick and practised speaker. However, it also became obvious very early on that he was not addressing the entire audience. I very quickly realized that in this context I was a “they”, and there was no concession given to the fact that there were autistic delegates present. While the majority of the audience laughed at Attwood’s “jokes” (about robots, Oxford and Cambridge, the Antiques Roadshow, and whether or not autistic people were still virgins in their mid-20s), I started to become somewhat irritated by this “humour”, most of which seemed to be carefully calculated to get the non-autistic members of the audience on side. I also wondered, though, how funny the parents present would find the jokes about virginity when their own children reached their mid-20s and were struggling with relationships? The fact that autistic children grow up into autistic adults (rather quickly) seems to be perpetually forgotten or ignored by so many people who focus on children.
As someone who was a classroom teacher for 5 years, I’m absolutely aware that humour can be a great way to teach and to help an audience to remember points that are being made. BUT, and this is a really big BUT, when that humour is at the expense of a minority group, it crosses the line from being fun and educational to being downright offensive. Attwood’s references to having “learnt Aspergerese” as some sort of language came over as downright crass, and his pointing out of his own proof-reading mistake in one of his slides, followed up by the assertion that “some aspie would probably point it out to him” was horribly reinforcing of stereotypes that really should have been consigned to history by now. I wrote in my notes: “You do not need to be autistic to be able to proof-read a slide properly – I have loads of allistic friends who are superb proof readers!!!” Attwood also used the term “neurotypical” to refer to non-autistic people throughout, never explaining that he was doing so colloquially or addressing the fact that there exist non-autistic neurodivergent people, who he basically erased from the planet with his language. He is, sadly, not alone in this.
Throughout all of Attwood’s sessions I kept having to remind myself that the “they” and “them” he was talking about was actually me. It felt like, as far as he was concerned, I was not part of his audience but one of his “subjects”. The converse of the “humour” was the sad story – tales of family members and patients also elicited responses from the audience, although in this case, sympathetic muttering rather than polite laughter. Throughout the day I was determined to be my authentic autistic self and didn’t deliberately seek out other humans (I was overloaded by the sheer number of them in the room in any case), and nobody spoke to me or approached me. I wondered, when hearing these sympathetic mutterings what people were thinking about the obviously autistic person sitting in the corner gently rocking to myself and chewing on a necklace designed for the purpose (I’d already damaged my fingers by chewing the skin off – ironically during the session on self-harm)!!!
At the outset of the last plenary Attwood directly spoke to us (the audience) with the words “You, as the parent/carer…” which was an interesting experience for me since I am neither a parent nor a carer. Was I even supposed to be at this conference? Was this talk for me at all? I have heard the term “othering” used when describing Attwood’s style, and it seemed very much to apply in this case. He also used phrases such as “somebody must fall in love with an aspie or they’d have died out years ago”, implying that “falling in love with an aspie” was some sort of weird penance maybe? He also seemed to focus rather heavily on those autistic people who would, under the (now superseded) DSM-4 have received (and still do receive, in some places under the ICD-10) a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and also used the terms “severe autism” and “classic autism”, neither of which is beloved of many autistic people. I didn’t get much of a sense that he respected the whole of the autistic community with all its richness and variety of experience.
There were other indicators that Attwood was not really up to date with current thinking in the neurodiverse community and had focused his work on the view from “outside” rather than listening to those of us who make up that community. I also believe I heard him misgender someone, though I’m not in a position to call him out on that without hearing from the person concerned and establishing what they are comfortable with. It was also an interesting conference to attend for me as my main experience at conferences thus far has been of academics presenting to academics and many of the questions are often challenges or additions to the work presented. The questions that were drawn from the floor in this case were predominantly of the “please can you tell me what to do about my child / children I teach” and so on. When asked about autistic children in school being bullied, Attwood suggested that some other kids could be “trained to speak Aspergerese” (that phrase again) and could then be issued with “jigsaw puzzle badges”. At the mention of puzzle pieces I nearly fell off my chair. Does Attwood really not know just how offensive the puzzle piece symbol is to many members of the autistic community? Should somebody tell him?
It was a really interesting experience actually hearing all this. And it was in contrast to Khalid Karim’s professionalism and Wenn Lawson’s inclusive friendliness. I’m not saying that Attwood’s work hasn’t been incredibly useful in many ways. His strategies for balancing energy and dealing with meltdowns and shutdowns are excellent, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome is a mine of information, and I shall also willingly read the recent book on depression, and it was obvious from some of the questions that many of the people at the conference learnt a great deal from him – I totally appreciate that most of them probably don’t, as I do, have 45 years experience living as an autistic in a non-autistic world, many of them will not have self-harmed or attempted to take their own lives, nor will they have experienced meltdowns and shutdowns from the inside. Neither will most of them have spent the last 9 months intensively studying absolutely everything they possibly can about autism, as I have! In many ways that is my privilege. Although Attwood would probably just tell me I was being a “typical aspie” or some such!
I had read tales online of autistic people returning from Attwood’s talks upset and traumatized. Partly because I was prepared for it, and partly because I treated the whole experience as an academic exercise, that wasn’t the case for me (although my sensory system was so overloaded when I got home that I could barely run a bath because the noise of the water running was so painful to my ears). Half way down the penultimate page of my notes I wrote “I wonder whether I could organize a proper autistic friendly conference” and I remember thinking “Right, my goal is to be speaking at things like this in 5 years time and I’m going to remember this experience”. Going to the conference has, to an extent, started me thinking about what role I might have in the future – what place there might be for an autistic adult who has academic experience, teaching experience, a fierce desire to learn, and is happy to stand up and speak to an audience? Is there some small way in which I can improve the world for all autistic people? Can I facilitate understanding of all things autistic using both experience and knowledge? Only time will tell. I know that, for the time being I’m still learning and still recovering from a severe autistic burnout, but I am also starting to get ideas and little beginnings of things to think about for the future. I might have spent most of the day silent, stimming, unable to access food, and not putting on any sort “social mask” (simply not enough energy for such a course of action), but it didn’t mean my brain was switched off – in fact, allowing myself to stim and not to worry about pouring energy into trying to chat to people or behave “appropriately” was the exact strategy that allowed me to spend my energy absorbing the information and thinking about it in some depth!
The conference has also inspired me to return to serious study of autism. Since my diagnosis in February I’ve eased off a bit and lost the impetus slightly, but it’s now back and I have new things to think about. I sat at the end of the conference wondering how this phase of “understanding autism” will be viewed in the future. I pondered the connection between adult autistics and allistic autism researchers, and how the two might work together and respect each other. I thought about the organization of events, about what might be researched and written, about the lack of focus on adults, and about how the current “understanding” seems to be very much based on models created by non-autistic people.
I got the feeling that this whole area is still very new, and that genuine understanding of autism is still very much under construction. But I also wondered whether Attwood’s approach was beginning to become part of “the past” now and whether greater consultation with autistic adults might be the way of the future. I came away with a sense that if the National Autistic Society really are going to keep going “Until everyone understands” then they have a long job ahead of them, and even their conference organizers still have a lot of understanding to gain – I didn’t return the feedback form at the end of the day because I simply didn’t have the energy, but I shall tweet this blog post to the NAS, and maybe, just maybe, somebody there will read it.
And as for me, was it worth going? Absolutely it was. It took me two full days afterwards to stop feeling really quite ill (there’s a reason these blog posts are being published a week after the event), but the knowledge I gained (about many things) was huge. I’ve also made new contacts online, started generating ideas in my mind, added to my reading list, and gained insight about many things.
Perhaps even more than that though, I proved I could do it. It wasn’t easy, and it was the first time I’d been out of the flat all day, without a known ally to look after me, in over 9 months. It took an awful lot of energy. But I managed it, survived, didn’t fall to pieces, and even learnt quite a lot. It really did feel like something of an achievement!