Autism Acceptance 2022

You don’t have to be an expert to know that people with autism don’t get to speak about their own experiences.” – Hannah Gadsby

Yes, it’s that time of year again – Autism Acceptance is here! Of course, as far as I’m concerned every day should be a Neurodiversity Inclusion Day, but April in particular is the month of celebrating all things Autism, and who am I to make an exception?!

Why “Acceptance”?

April used to be the month of Autism “Awareness” campaigns, but lots of people are aware of autism, right? They know the word, and unfortunately they know the stereotypes. Moving to “acceptance” shows a change of direction from telling people about autism, to actually enabling autistic people to be themselves. There is a good article on this here from USA Today if you want to read more. But even better, we would love to see next year’s campaigns branded Autism “Inclusion” to go one step further.

Why is Autism Acceptance needed?

I headed this blog with a quote from Hannah Gadsby. She speaks so eloquently on the challenges associated with being autistic (I stress the challenges “associated”, not challenges “with being” autistic).

In her autobiography “Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation”, Hannah says:

I was told I was too fat to be autistic. I was told I was too social to be autistic. I was told I was too empathic to be autistic. I was told I was too female to be autistic. I was told I wasn’t autistic enough to be autistic.”

And this is all too true – there is still a pervasive stereotype of autism that is not representative of the true experience. You can read more about this in our blog “What Neurodiversity looks like”.

Another person lending their voice is James Cusack, CEO of Autistica, who says:

Some are surprised I can live on my own, drive a car or even get married. They’ve questioned whether it’s fair on my children that I had them in the first place. Probably most hurtful is the suggestion that I don’t care about people because I’m autistic… These attitudes have to change.”

Autism Acceptance is about understanding what it is really like to be autistic, not making assumptions, and allowing autistic people to be their authentic selves.

What Can I Do to Understand More?

The first and most important step in driving Autism Acceptance and Inclusivity is to listen to the people around you, whether autistic, neurodivergent or any other difference to yourself, listen to how other people experience the world and how the world treats them. This is the foundation of inclusion.

If you want to understand more specifically about autism, engage with autistic voices and allies:

– Watch Hannah Gadsby’s stand up show Douglas on Netflix or read “Ten Steps to Nanette” (I devoured it in two days – can’t recommend it highly enough!)

– Watch comedian Joe Wells 90 second segment on having a non-autistic brother

– Read about Amy Schumer’s allyship. She saidI don’t see being on the spectrum as a negative thing. My husband is my favorite person I’ve ever met. He’s kind, hilarious, interesting, and talented, and I admire him. Am I supposed to hope my son isn’t like that?

– Watch films and TV series or read books with authentic autistic-coded characters (these characters display common autistic traits but aren’t declared autistic), for example:

Pixar’s Encanto

The Bridge

The IT Crowd

Bob’s Burgers

These characters help to normalise autistic characteristics, which in turn helps to foster inclusion. And more inclusion is all-round better for everyone.

Hannah

Why Do We Need “Spiky” Profiles?

We humans love to categorise, categorise and sub-categorise, don’t we? We divide football fans into Spurs, United, Hornet supporters; once upon a time tweenage girls were peer-branded Sporty, Scary, Ginger, Baby or Posh; and anyone who has the faintest idea whether they are Gen X, Gen Z or a Millennial deserves colossal round of applause!

What is a Spiky Profile?

From an early age we encouraged to be average at everything: English, Maths, Sport, Music, Languages… We are taught to master the basics of all the academic disciplines; we are given a “rounded” education. If we show a natural aptitude for any of those subjects we might be encouraged to pursue them in more depth, but if we don’t, average is adequate.

But that’s not how the world works, because we are constantly categorising and comparing.

If you’re at the beach and a friend gets into difficulty in the water, you send the strongest swimmer to save them – your childhood Sporty Spice impersonator, perhaps. It doesn’t matter whether Sporty can do basic trigonometry, the strongest swimmer gets the gig.

Equally, pulling together a quiz team for your local fundraiser, you pick your brainiest friends or those with good memories, regardless of, say, their prowess with poetry. Though I do think a witty limerick contest would make a great tie-breaker!

The term “spiky profile” is the opposite of being a good all-rounder, it’s the idea that if you want an expert on your team, they might fall short of “average” in other skillsets.

The irony of the human condition is that you already know this is true. You already know that you can’t have a team comprised solely of leaders. Neither can you have a team comprised solely of analysts, or strategists. And yet we tend to shoal with people who resemble ourselves – people who support the same football team, come from the same area, or have the same interests or skill sets, and this means that we tend to forge groups and teams of people who are very, very similar.

What has this got to do with Neurodiversity?

The paradox of Neurodiversity is that, once we realise we are neurodivergent and start to understand our full potential, the rest of the world – in parallel – appears to curb it. As we realise that we aren’t stupid, lazy or rude:

We go from being “the geeky one” to “the autistic one”.

We go from being “the funny one” to “the one with ADHD”.

We go from being “the creative one” to “the dyslexic one”.

And with each of these labels the world limits us. “The autistic one will do embarrassing weird stuff with their hands and won’t be able to sit still.” “The one with ADHD won’t be able to concentrate and get the job done.” “The dyslexic one won’t be able to complete the paperwork correctly.”

Our “spiky profiles” are flipped on their heads, and we are pigeon-holed not by what we can do, but by what we (supposedly) can’t do.

What is the solution?

Firstly, neurodivergent people need the support of neurotypical people to break down the stereotypes. Sure, an autistic person might tap the table to help them concentrate, but don’t assume that they will. Some of the most focussed people I have had meetings with have ADHD. And spellcheck, dictation software and screen filters are a huge help for dyslexia.

We need your help to make sure that neurodivergent people are judged on their own individual personalities, strengths and skills rather than the preconceived ideas that come with our diagnostic labels. I have, in my time, been called “diligent”, “organised”, “a good leader”. We need to be careful not to spin these into “pedantic”, “rigid” and “bossy” when coupled with knowledge of a neurodivergent diagnosis, and the same is true of the many other positive traits that neurodistinct people may have.

But it is also important to remember that not all neurodivergent people will be remarkable. In Hannah Gadsby’s Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation she says, “It is a basic human right to have average abilities.” In the same way that we shouldn’t peg all neurodistinct people with stereotypical negative traits, we shouldn’t assume they have the perceived “positive” ones either: when you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person. We are all unique.

Secondly, we need to forge teams with complimentary skillsets – opposite “spiky profiles” – to enable everyone in that team to reach their potential. We take the best of someone’s particular skills, and plug any gaps with team members who excel in complimentary areas. Think 2011’s Moneyball, a story about using statistics to forge the strongest possible baseball team.

Ultimately, neurodivergent people just want to be afforded the same opportunities as everyone else.

And for the record, I was always Posh Spice due to my brunette bob and lack of facial expressions…!

Hannah