Lily, our content and access artist, shares Autistic Conversations, part 1…
Listen to this blog on soundcloud
Welcome to the first part of this blog series celebrating autism acceptance month!
Through these blogs I wanted to share real autistic experiences and explore what it means to be an autistic person, both in dance and in the wider world. It’s going to be a three-part series, blog one serving as an introduction to neurodiversity and autism acceptance, blog two shares personal experiences through conversations with autistic dancers, and blog three is an exploration of autism, dance education and employment.
These blogs may be lengthy (one of my special interests is writing), so please take the time you need to read them, take a break and come back to it if you need. I’ve also created an audio version of the blog which you can find on SoundCloud and embedded above.
Firstly – Nothing about Autism without Autistics!
This blog is written by an actually autistic person, in conversation with, and with contributions from other actually autistic people. All too often discussions around autism can be dominated by non-autistic people, which silences the authentic voices, experiences and wishes of autistics. Listen to the autistic community; they continue to share their experience and knowledge in order to benefit their community and educate non-autistic people.
I hope to represent the autistic community the best I can, but discourse runs within every community so you may have differing opinions which are valid; however, this is a space that affirms autistic people and works within the frameworks of the social model of disability and disability justice.
Autism is a lifelong, genetic neurological variation and is classified as a developmental disability. Autism has always existed; autistic people have always been a part of society and are part of every community across the world.
Autistic people experience the world in different ways. Some of us use speech to communicate, some of us use alternative forms of communication. We socialise, process our senses, learn and problem solve in different ways. Some of us require little support with day-to-day living and some of us need greater support. Autism itself is not a learning disability, but a lot of autistic people also have learning disabilities, around 50% in fact.
Though we often share neurological commonalities, we are all vastly different from one another. We’re all individuals with completely different traits, strengths, weaknesses and personalities! This means we all face different challenges, and we thrive in different ways.
Encouraging unconditional acceptance of autistic people, it is important to not by extension assume we don’t experience challenges. Often autistic people are disabled due to living in a world that prioritises the neurotypical experience. Neurodivergent people struggle and face barriers because of the systems and customs of a society that is not designed for, or accepting of us.
Whilst researching for this blog series, though the autistic community provided so much invaluable positive insight, I came across a lot of information that considers autism in a very negative light. From outdated terminology and diagnosis, to traumatic approaches to therapy, and campaigns about autism that are nothing short of offensive. Autism is very often mistakenly assumed to be detrimental to people’s lives, and autistic people are alienated from society for their differences.
The national days of recognition around autism have historically been campaigns of autism awareness. These particular campaigns again have been led by non-autistic people and carry messages from organisations that in reality inflict pain, suffering and trauma on autistic people. Awareness is important but needs to be done in the right way; for example, highlighting policy changes that directly affect autistics, advocating for education and support needs. What we need is awareness, acceptance, appreciation and inclusive action.
Why is it that autism is misunderstood and thought of as detrimental in people’s lives?
A paradigm shift is yet to take place, most people still understand autism within the medical model of disability. Which assumes there is a correct way to develop neurologically. Therefore, upholding the idea that autistic brains have somehow developed wrong, and their autism therefore has a tragic and detrimental effect on their lives.
If you are unfamiliar with models of disability, this resource from Drake Music, a national organisation working in music, disability and technology, breaks down each model: www.drakemusic.org/blog
The autistic community have sought to undo the damage inflicted on them by misrepresentation and misinformation. It’s important to acknowledge that even in psychology – experts on autism can be very stuck within the medical model of disability, that autism is a problem and can be solved or fixed with treatment. It’s clear that when the belief autism can be “cured” is still believed and spread, that we haven’t quite reached a level of societal acceptance or even actual awareness of issues we face.
Challenging the medical model, the neurodiversity paradigm affirms that all types of brains are equally valid and valuable. That neurodiversity is an essential and natural part of human evolution and variation.
“The Neurodiversity Paradigm is an emergent paradigm in which neurodiversity is understood to be a form of human diversity that is subject to the same social dynamics as other forms of diversity (including dynamics of power and oppression). Neurodiversity is an essential form of human diversity. The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race or culture.” – Nick Walker, Source: autisticuk.org/neurodiversity
In practice, this links to acceptance – accepting people for how they are, not trying to change the very fabric of their being by assuming they can be cured, fixed or made neurotypical. By applying the neurodiversity paradigm, it helps enable people to thrive as autistic people. It applies not just to autism but the wide spectrum of neurodiversity.
Finding out that I was autistic affirmed to me that actually there’s no problem with how my brain works, I wasn’t a failed neurotypical person, I was actually a perfectly okay autistic person.
This is why I think it’s important to examine what we mean by acceptance, that autistic folks are accepted unconditionally.
- Accepted if we behave visibly different
- Embraced without our behaviours being judged against neurotypical standards
- Listened to even if we don’t use typical means of communication such as speech
- Affirmed for our strengths and supported with our needs
This list is unending!
How you talk about autism, autistic people and disabilities in general is important. Many like to shift the responsibility away from themselves by saying that being ‘pedantic’ or ‘picky’ around language detracts from the real issues. But in fact, the language you use can be more indicative of real issues than you think.
Autism, up until the last decade, has mostly been regarded as a “disorder”, however this view is challenged by the neurodiversity model which embraces autism as a natural part of human diversity. ‘Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact’ – Nick Walker.
We’re perfectly capable of living happy lives, and we do. However, without the right support, the right approaches and the acceptance to be ourselves, we do tend to experience unhappiness, suffering and mental illness.
Another element of language to touch on is identity first vs person first language. You may note that throughout these blogs I refer to us as autistic people, rather than people with autism. Within the autistic community, autistic person is preferred, though personal preference is always respected, and some may still use ‘person with autism’.
For me, I prefer the identity first version as I cannot be separated from being autistic and it empowers me.
The confidence I am building within myself is supported by the neurodiversity paradigm, by the autistic community, and by understanding and accepting myself for who I am.
I believe society should work to acknowledge, affirm, accept and appreciate the neurodivergent within its population, because we’re intrinsic to the rich diversity of the world.
With this first blog, I hope I’ve provided you with some context around autism and neurodiversity. Delving into what acceptance means and how we’re still shifting societal perceptions around autism. So that throughout April, which is Autism Acceptance month, you can continue to learn from autistic people and so we can move forward to create a society that works for autistic people.
Please share these blogs and support the autistic community throughout the month (and really all year round). Support autistic and neurodivergent dancers, support autistic artists and their work, appreciate autistic colleagues and consider how you can create a more inclusive workplace.
Stay tuned for the next instalment which dives into autism representation and lived experiences through conversation with fellow autistic dancers…
Thank you for reading,
Links & further reading:
More on language and identity vs person first language: autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/
Useful terms relevant to #ActuallyAutistic people: theautisticats.weebly.com
Autistic women & non-binary network: awnnetwork.org/
More on autism awareness vs. acceptance: