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Growing up with autism in 1970s and 1980s Britain

Growing up with autism in 1970s and 1980s Britain

Growing up as an aspie kid in the seventies and eighties in Britain sucked. But it sucked for everyone, in some respects. No one had heard of autism (outside of psychiatry circles) anyway. Of course, those of us that are aspie didn’t even know we had Asperger’s Syndrome, or any autism profile, back then. We just knew we felt different, and saw the world differently to our peers.

Family photo to illustrate editorial about how Growing up as an aspie kid in the seventies and eighties in Britain sucked.

The 70s and 80s were wonderful in many ways. But growing up as an aspie kid in the 70s & 80s sucked. (Stock shot).

If we could sum up the era of the 1970s and 1980s in one word it would be disrespect. Of course, there were benefits to growing up in this era – no technology to interfere with playing in the great outdoors, for example – however there was a happy slappy culture in UK homes that saw many parents dish out smacks willy nilly, and use unkind name calling.

At school, corporal punishment was no longer an issue (at this author’s 1980s comprehensive school at least – as corporal punishment was outlawed in UK state schools in 1986; my second year of high school.)

However, teachers weren’t immune to flinging wooden blackboard rubbers around with happy abandon, and they were verbally abusive on occasion.



Casual violence in schools and homes

Cassette tape to illustrate autism article about the 1980s

Some things are best consigned to history.

A lackadaisical approach to casual violence seeped through generations and families. As it was ‘ok’ to smack your kids at home, it was ok to do it at school. Boys hit boys, boys hit girls, and the school bus often witnessed ripples of slaps to the back of heads going down the aisles.

(Incidentally, modern research has, thankfully, found that smacking kids is detrimental.

The NHS reports that: “Researchers made the case that smacking in childhood could have the same long-term negative impact as traumatic life events, such as being sexually abused or parents getting divorced.”)


Autistic in the 1980s

Grandparent with an autistic child (stock shot)In my comprehensive (high) school, with 180 kids in my year, three or four kids would likely have been autistic. I can only recall one person in my peer group who may have had learning difficulties, and he was regularly tormented, and had legendary ‘meltdowns’, when school furniture would fly. I don’t remember him receiving any special support from educators, but perhaps he did.

Lorna Wing’s pioneering work in autism research

Psychiatrist and autism researcher Lorna Wing and her colleagues would go on to change the face of autism research. Ms Wing pioneered new changes to autism diagnostic criteria; in 1981 she published a paper called: ‘Asperger’s Syndrome: a Clinical Account’, however Asperger’s wasn’t included in medical diagnostic guidelines until the 1990s.

So, in the 1980s, in the average British household, few people had heard of autism. (The film Rainman didn’t hit cinemas until 1989, and it was probably the first time many people had any kind of awareness about autism.)

In addition, in my educational circle at least, few people knew of dyslexia; and anyone perceived as being different, whether due to perceived sexuality, neurodiversity or otherwise, was subject to widespread disrespect.

Kind words, kind hands

Family life through the ages - stock shot for autism article

Family life through the ages

There was no talk of kind hands or kind words in the 1970s. Our parents were born in the years directly after the war. Many new parents in the 40s and 50s must have suffered terribly, if not directly by active service and the toll this took (especially in terms of the many fathers who didn’t return home), than by austerity. The post war years were stark for many families. Good food was presumably scarce in many homes, emotions were frayed, and money, for many families at least, must have been extremely tight. Respect for children was presumably low down on the list! So, it’s no wonder that by the time the post war babies became parents, familiar disrespectful habits were resurfacing.

It’s key to remember that autistic children experience difficulties with social communication, expressive language, impulse control, repetitive processes and sensory challenges. Being smacked surely only adds to their sense of confusion?

This disrespectful culture has changed

Thankfully, now many of the kids of the seventies and eighties are parents too, to a large degree this disrespectful culture has changed. It does of course depend on individual circumstances, socio-economic situations, as well as culture, geography and finances, but for the most part, today’s parents are seemingly more respectful. Smacking children is very much frowned upon in all circles.

Autism education has never been so accessible

Sad child - to show that smacking children was de rigour in the 80s and 70s

Smacking children was de rigour in the 80s and 70s

Today there is also a wealth of information available to us on parenting and neurodiversity, and of course, resources are just a click away online. Want to order a book on autistic traits in children, or go on a ‘Parenting the PDA child’ course? Google will sort that out for you in seconds. Autism education has never been so accessible.

Smacking kids, and the law

Smacking is currently not illegal in the UK, providing it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’, according to section 58 of the Children Act 2004. However, Scotland and Wales are planning to ban smacking, at the time of writing.

So, in the 21st century, smacking children is a no-go; but even if it wasn’t frowned upon (or made illegal), today’s parents just don’t want to smack our kids (although sadly there are bound to be some exceptions). Why would we want to inflict violence on our children? We know from experience it serves no purpose. It’s invariably just a frustration-releasing exercise on the part of the parent.

Kind hands and words for autists

And for parents of autistic children, it’s important to teach them that kind hands and words are the way forward. Life is already frustrating enough for young autists, and their impulse control is often under-developed. The very many kind and empathetic kids around today, who are educated about showing and understanding their emotions, is testament to today’s more respectful familial society.

Moving forward

So what’s the next step? Certainly, for all generations to learn more about autism. And, we believe, for the respect that we’ve mentioned to continue across the autism community. Currently there’s noticeable divisions between #actuallyautistic activists and educators, and self-styled warrior ‘autism parents’. The latter may seek cures for their children’s autism, and some speak of ‘loving the child, hating the autism’, as if the two were separate. You can even wear a t shirt emblazoned with phrases such as these!

(Read our views below!!)

‘I’m a haemorrhoid warrior!’ Why Autism T-shirts and ‘Autism Warrior’ garments are insidiously wrong

If autists could gain the respect that every neurodiverse individual deserves, the world would certainly be a better place, for ourselves and for future generations.

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

The emotional cutlery drawer of spoons, and the ‘social hangover’ (autism)

The emotional cutlery drawer of spoons, and the ‘social hangover’ (autism)

The emotional cutlery drawer of spoons, and the ‘social hangover’ (autism)

One of hardest difficulties to deal with when autistic can be the ‘social hangover’ – the after-effects of socialisation that deplete an autist’s energy. Let’s explore this concept further.

Image showing three spoons, to show the spoon theory, in an autism context.

The spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino.

The spoon theory

Firstly, it’s important to realise that ALL autists use many, many ‘spoons’ or energy units when they socialise; and that includes socialisation with their family.

Not heard of the spoon theory? It was developed quite by chance by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, and uses ‘spoons’ to explain how to ration one’s energy. The spoon theory, a kind of disability metaphor, states that a person with a reduction in energy levels (emotional or physical), starts the day with a certain number of spoons.

Each spoon represents a burst of energy; so showering, getting dressed etc requires small numbers of spoons, as does conversing with close friends and family at home. Some activities, for example, meeting a group of friends or colleagues, being interviewed, chatting in a public place, require lots of spoons (for an autist, or autistic individual).

Autistic communication and social interaction issues

Therefore, autists often find that, due to their autistic challenges – e.g. social communication and social interaction issues, as well as sensory challenges – great chunks of their energy may be used up more quickly than that of their neurotypical peers and family members.

And what happens when an autist socialises – even with friends or family that they love and enjoy spending time with? They use up lots of spoons!

The spoon theory in practice

Let’s take an average day for a busy working autist Mum, and let’s say she has 12 spoons of (mainly emotional) energy that day, which was Christine Miserandino’s original proposition.

Get up and complete the morning duties and the school run. Two spoons.

Do a few hours at her part time job. Four spoons.

Do the school run and complete the afternoon family duties. Two spoons.

Cook tea and manage the child’s bedtime regime. Two spoons.

Converse with her family. Two spoons.

Image showing 16 spoons, to show the spoon theory, in an autism context. (ASD ASC)

Sixteen spoons? Which lucky autistic individual has 16 spoons at their disposal?

That’s all her energy used up.

But what if something unexpected happens – e.g a phone call from a relative that was emotionally draining; a long chat at the school gates with a fellow parent; an impromptu talk with the teacher; or a neighbour wanting to chat? These require spoons, and our theoretical autist Mum has none left. In an ideal world, she would realise her spoon allocation had ‘run over’ that day, and would plan for a quieter day the next day, to recalibrate. Maybe using self care tools like headphone-time listening to music, reading a book, having a nap, or whatever works for her.

The social hangover

And what if our Mum wanted to arrange some social time with a friend or family? Dinner perhaps, a little shopping spree, time at the park with the kids, a trip to a local attraction? It’s likely this would use up a massive part of her daily spoon allowance.

(Especially as there’s very likely to be background music, extra lighting, or noisy chatter thrown into the sensory melting pot.)

So, she’d have to plan for both a low-spoon day on the day of the social visit, and probably the next day too, to recalibrate.

If her spoon-management wasn’t up to speed, our autist would likely suffer from a ‘social hangover’, whereby she’d need downtime from most conversation and interaction, and probably sensory stimulation, until she recovered. (Otherwise autistic shutdown may ensue.)

The emotional cutlery drawer is finite

So, it is important for friends and family members of autists (kids and adults alike) to realise that, no matter how much they may want to see you or converse with you, the autist’s energy bank (or emotional cutlery drawer!) is finite.

Days out, family parties, Christmas events, visiting relatives and the like can be exhausting for autists. It’s important to plan one’s social calendar carefully in relation to the rest of the week, to limit social hangovers.

And imagine what a social hangover is like for an autistic child, who maybe can’t grasp their emotional cutlery draw needs, or explain or understand why they’re mentally exhausted? Family members of autistic children ideally need to factor in enough down time, so the child doesn’t get too run down or spoon-deficient.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

Please also read our ‘Aspie super power days blog, which details how autists may also be in a ‘spectrum within a spectrum’, e.g. with slow days, fast days and recovery days.

NB we don’t claim to be autism experts – we’re just sharing our own experiences and views.

Aspie-superpower days – why autists may be on an ‘autistic spectrum within a spectrum’? We look at the different ‘autistic’ days…