The Infinite Diversity of Autism
Lily, our content and access artist, shares Autistic Conversations, part 2...
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Hello and welcome to part two of this blog series in celebration of Autism Acceptance month! In this blog I’ll be sharing and expanding on some conversations I’ve had with fellow autistic dancers. Speaking from personal experience and hopefully illuminating the wide spectrum of autism and diversity of autistic people.
If you’ve not read the first part in this series which introduces autism and neurodiversity, you can find it here: Autism Acceptance starts with understanding…
ID: A photo of Fin dancing on the floor, he lays down reaching an arm above his head, eyes closed.
Over the past month I’ve connected regularly with Fin, one of our Sg2 apprentices and the first autistic dancer Stopgap has employed. We also spoke with Fiona, an autistic dancer who regularly joins Stopgap for classes, workshops and SG Troop, our Adult Dance Group.
We spent some wonderful hours on zoom chatting; covering topics that ranged from autistic representation, personal experiences as autistic dancers, our special interests and a few thoughts on the turbulence of the past year. We reflected that we’d not really had this opportunity before to share our unique perspectives in a space with other autistic people. It gave us the chance to openly share with one another without hesitation and without the fear that we’d be judged.
From these conversations it became clear that we shared many similar stories and experiences, for example navigating turbulent times in education, connecting over similar challenges, and each finding a deep interest in dance. However, though we share many resemblances, we are all individual and nuanced, even within a trio we showcase the diversity within autism.
We each expressed our frustrations at the many myths and stereotypes surrounding autism, which often stick to a classic ‘textbook’ depiction, overlooking the vast majority of the autistic community and mistakenly assuming we’re all the same.
Some of these myths are being discussed in these videos by student members of the Autism Social Network at the University of Nottingham:
Watch more here: Project Myth-buster
These videos help show that anyone can be autistic, and everyone’s autism is unique to them.
Stereotypes like those mentioned are mostly perpetuated through media; TV and films are one of the main ways people consume information on autism. Fin talked about there being only really two kind of representations of us in media:
There’s the autistic savant character that possesses some kind of incredible skill or special ability (think Rain Man). It’s not a completely inaccurate portrayal; some autistic people do have Savant syndrome, which is a rare condition where they have ‘certain abilities far in excess of average’. But in reality, this represents a very small percentage of autistic people. Though films such as Rain Man brought awareness to the existence of autistic people, it creates a cultural stereotype and a myth that all autistic people are exceptional with maths, have great memories or are geniuses.
The other kind of character develops on this, embodying every cliched autistic behaviour, playing into tired stereotypes. Often these characters are dehumanised and portrayed as unfeeling, unloving and alienated within their fictional community.
It creates such a limiting, restricted understanding of autistic people. A homogenous representation of autism disregards the wide diversity of actual autistic people. Leading to greater issues with discrimination, accessing support and can lead to situations that endanger the lives of autistics.
There have been many damaging portrayals of autistic people and autistic storylines. Most recently the shocking portrayal of a young nonspeaking autistic girl in Sia’s film ‘Music’ has rocked the autistic community and somehow still received Golden Globe nominations despite autistic advocates campaigning against its release since the film’s inception. If you are unfamiliar with the controversy, I’d recommend Eden’s review of the film: 'Music' Film Review
Not only does misrepresentation fail to acknowledge the beautiful diversity of autistic people, but it also shows how eager people are to tell autistic stories without consulting the autistic community or even daring to include autistic actors to play autistic characters. Sadly, there is so much wasted potential with the stories autistic people could tell. Stories that don’t centre on their diagnosis but feature them as fully realised characters who are autistic.
When we have this one-dimensional idea of autism, it can lead to comments such as “You don’t seem autistic” or “you don’t look autistic”. Not only can this feel incredibly invalidating, but it also continues to uphold the idea that autistic people are all the same and present in only one way. Don’t assume that what you see externally reflects anything going on internally.
When speaking with Fiona, she shared an excellent point about how people often think that the autism spectrum is a linear one. A spectrum along a line that goes from extreme to mild, often working with functioning labels of high or low functioning autism.
ID: A graphic showing a scribbled rainbow spectrum going from Less autistic "High-functioning" to More Autistic "Low-Functioning'
The autistic community reject these functioning labels that others affix to them. In reality these labels are used to refer to an autistic person’s ability to “fit in” with society. These labels are based on comparing autistic brains to neurotypical brains, those who are “low functioning” as often labelled as such because they tend to be those who are nonspeaking and have higher support needs. To label individuals this way is dehumanising and doesn’t acknowledge the fluctuation of autistic people, from day to day, and throughout their life.
Fiona instead said that the spectrum is much more like this:
ID: A graphic of a rainbow spectrum within a circle, labelled around the edge in black text is: Communication, executive function, movement, processing and filtering, learning and sensory experience.
A constellation where we have sets of traits in various areas of the spectrum:
ID: A set of three colour wheel spectrums with small crosses marked on various different areas of the spectrum.
How freeing it is to live within a fluctuating constellation, free of a restrictive idea that we exist in one set way.
Misconceptions around autism can create difficulties for us in everyday situations, but also hinders autistic people being recognised and diagnosed. People can be refused diagnosis for things such as maintaining eye contact or for having a social life.
All three of us had different stories to tell around finding out we were autistic, each story bringing with it really interesting questions about how diagnosis shapes and affects our lives. Fin was diagnosed at a young age, Fiona and me both found out we were autistic at a much later stage in life. This might speak somewhat to the gender gap in autism diagnosis, boys and those assigned male at birth are much more likely be diagnosed as autistic than girls and those assigned female at birth. It’s important to note that it’s likely that there are just as many autistic women as there are men, however diagnostic criteria were created by observing male autistic children. It was really interesting unpacking how we felt about diagnosis and what it gave to us.
Having an awareness at a young age can give you a sense of understanding around why you might be facing challenges in certain areas of life, though it doesn’t solve them, it can enable a pathway to being acknowledged and supported. However sometimes it can make you a target or isolate you when educational settings aren’t integrated and inclusive.
Not having an awareness of your diagnosis can be really frustrating. For myself, because I didn’t know I was autistic, I didn’t have the language to express to people why I was experiencing difficulties or why I was perhaps a bit different. Throughout my life I’ve been labelled as fussy, difficult and strange. My behaviour and actions have been misinterpreted and it’s led to me internalising my difficulties and blaming them on myself.
Without support at a younger age, it can sadly cause greater problems in adulthood. Not only can you end up with burnout from years of masking, but you can also not be equipped with vital skills that enable you to live more independently. I have always felt slightly behind others, I spent my entire adolescence absorbed by the chaos of trying to figure myself out and worrying constantly about who I was. I never really had a chance to look forward because I was still learning how to interact with others and was puzzled by who I had to be. I developed an ability to hide certain traits, I did this without realising, which means that even now I’m having to rediscover myself, live authentically and un-mask at times.
The wonderful thing about diagnosis, whether that be professional or self-diagnosis, is that it gave me a sense of clarity. Like a switched flicked and suddenly I no longer felt like I needed to be different.
A place where difference is affirmed and celebrated is within inclusive dance. I wanted to finish by sharing a little more about us as dancers…
For Fiona, dancing enabled her to develop a lot of skills:
“Dance had such an impact on me, it was dance that gave me a reason to try to interact and communicate with people, I didn’t really speak before I started dance age 21”
Alongside communication, for Fiona, dance helped majorly with things such as body awareness, motor skills and coordination.
For Fin, when he was younger, he started off with ballet training and didn’t disclose his autism, but really thrived in a 1:1 setting with a teacher that noticed his determination and desire to really master his physical skill. He benefitted from the structure of ballet and it being a technique that contained rules and a clear pathway. Whenever I’ve chatted to Fin about what works really well for him when it comes to dance training, I’m always struck by his passion for getting things right. Fin enjoys certainty and wants to know he’s succeeding. Though it’s challenging when something isn’t going right, Fin really relishes feedback from teachers, who can then equip him with the tools and knowledge to improve on something.
Something I found dance helped me with from a young age, was being able to find a form of expression. My anxiety around my ability to verbally communicate was soothed when finding I could express inner thoughts and feelings through movement. I think it also did a great deal for my confidence as a young child. Dance was there to support me through a lot of challenging times, I found that dance was a way to process difficult emotions and gave me a physical outlet. I really found comfort that my movement could be accepted as an expression of myself.
My aim within this blog was to help expand on our understanding of autism and the wide diversity of autistic people. It’s important to me that all autistic voices are heard and represented, which includes nonspeaking autistics, black autistics, queer autistics. Below I’ve linked more resources which raise further points on the misrepresentation of autism and affirm the diversity within neurodiversity,
Thank you for reading!
- ‘Autistic while black’: How autism amplifies stereotypes, by Catina Burkett
- Listen: A short film made by and with nonspeaking autistic people, by Communication First
- Toward a Neuroqueer Future: An Interview with Nick Walker
More articles on Autistic representation in media:
- My Autistic Opinion: Atypical is a Stereotypical Representation of Autism by Haley Moss
- Autistic people are not all superheroes, but we’re not all tragic, either by Ellen Jones
- Rain Man made autistic people visible. But it also entrenched a myth by Karl Knights