With the Association for Child And Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH)’s logo looming large behind the stage in Sheffield, and serving as a reminder that today was about improving understanding of mental health issues, Professor Tony Atwood was faced with a challenge at the talk: ‘Tony Attwood – What you need to know about Autism’, on May fifteenth, 2019. (Photo of Professor Attwood by ACMAH).
Would Professor Attwood, a seasoned speaker, continue the rhetoric that has included the disparagement of autistic individuals, in order to get a laugh from delegates predominately consisting of clinicians and parents of autistic children?
Or, would he develop a 250 strong community of inclusion and understanding whose delegates went away enlightened? The answer is – both.
Let’s look at the positives of Professor Tony Attwood’s autism presentation, of which there were many.
(1)Professor Attwood spoke of the increased awareness of the prominence of autistic girls and females. He detailed the ‘fake it till you make it’ practice of ‘camouflaging’ among young female autists, and indicated the risk of predatory male characters towards young female autists [the word ‘autists’ being the author of this blog’s preferred short-hand term for ‘autistic individuals’ – it isn’t a term that Professor Atwood used]. He explained that female autistics may lack a ‘social identity’.
(2)He spoke at length about autists’ ability to empathise (debunking out of date theories to the contrary). “They [autistics] just didn’t read the signals; it’s not that they don’t care.” [Yes, the ‘they’ language was prevalent!] Professor Attwood described ‘empathetic attunement’ in autists; a sixth sense of knowing what a third party feels, or their mood, which was a breath of fresh air, when many professional clinicians consider autists not to have empathy. (However, live on Professor Attwood’s website is the dated statement: ‘Someone with Asperger’s syndrome… has limited social understanding and empathy.’ Perhaps it is time to update the website?!)
(3)Professor Attwood changed his anecdotal content a little, when he took an anecdote he’s used before, when describing ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ concept; specifically when parents of an autistic child are present for their child’s diagnosis with Tony, and the father is seemingly also autistic. Instead of ‘taking the mickey’ out of the father’s voice and imitating the man as if he were a robot, this time there was no robotic voice.
(4)He acknowledged that autistic individuals may have a fantastic sense of humour, and often excel in wordplay, and puns.
(5)Professor Attwood did stress that his goal “Is [autistic] self acceptance, not to cure [autism]”, in the context of psychotherapy; e.g. non-pathologising.
(6)He waxed lyrical about the benefits of music and art therapy as therapeutic treatments to explore trauma, after an event.
(7)Professor Atwood spoke positively about adapting Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with components of yoga, mindfulness and music therapy, to help tackle depression.
He also gave specific adaptions based on the autistic individual’s learning profile, and gave recommendations regarding how to adapt the therapy, e.g. using visual clues and experiential tasks (e.g learning through experience, and reflecting).
He later advised that therapists using CBT with autists should definitely have experience of autism, and detailed the concept of giving parents CBT skills.
(8)Professor Attwood showcased some useful emotion games for autistic children, to improve their social skills and help reduce their anxiety, if they feel they ‘don’t fit in’. (Although the narrative didn’t also stress the importance of teaching neurotypical or non-autistic individuals (NTs) to accept autists’ differences!)
(9)He neatly turned his disparagement humour on NTs, saying that, “You have to feel sorry for them; they’re fragile flowers that wilt and die , if not hugged regularly”, when discussing autistics’ propensity to avoid excessive hugging.
(10)Professor Attwood also suggested that lyrics, music playlists, poetry, writing and art are forms of eloquent expression, in terms of researching how to tackle depression in autists. A nice, forward-thinking attitude!
(11)He suggested some very useful therapeutic strategies such as using a favourite TV show or film scene to help an autist describe their feelings, emphasising the importance of recognising one’s own feelings, to help promote good mental health.
(12)Professor Attwood did acknowledge the benefits of using technology to communicate from a social point of view, saying, “They [e.g. autistic individuals] can disclose their inner self through typing, not talking.’
(13)He mentioned the brilliant concept of using a Fitbit watch to check an autist’s heart rate, which increases under anxiety or stress, e.g. as a self-monitoring device. (And a tool for parents to monitor WHEN there’s a heart rate peak, e.g. to use as valuable data to prove the eminence of a child’s anxiety, and the locality or environment when the levels peaked).
(14)Professor Attwood did promote mentoring and advice from ‘actually autistic’ individuals, saying, “The repository of autism is there, with the knowledge,” when describing how autists had helped and given tips in response to his online ‘Ask Dr Tony’ series.
He also said psychotherapy for autists should ideally be designed and delivered by autistic individuals, citing four autistic psychologists that he personally knew.
(15)He did detail the concept of the ‘autistic energy account’, although mentioning the spoons theory, which autists tend to use, would have been a nice way to engage with the autistic community.
(16)With the narrative among some people in the UK that home-schooling may be a bad thing, Tony praised the concept of home-schooling young autists (with options or conditions), explaining that home-schooling had ‘saved his sister in law’s life’, in her teens.
(17)He did acknowledge the importance of sensory input as a trigger for anxiety, e.g. “In your bedroom [as an autist], your difficulties dissolve; you can manage your sensory input.”
(18)Although it wasn’t presented due to over-running timewise, there were some really excellent slides at the end (supplied to delegates), which referenced the ‘Self-affirmation Pledge’, ‘I am not defective, I am different’), and detailed a plan for dealing with a ‘Depression Attack’, that included removal from triggering environments and situations.
However, whilst the autistic individuals in the audience relished all of the above content, there was an issue with some of the LANGUAGE used. Here are some of the more negative elements of the event:
(1)The ‘othering’ language was prevalent, with Professor Attwood literally using ‘us and them’ language. (Also using identity first language e.g. ‘person with autism’, which many autists tend not to use.) Incidentally, the ‘othering’ narrative was also picked up by the mother of an autistic teen who had joined her at the conference.
The Mum was mortified at the ‘them and us’ language, and obviously distressed by it.
(2)There were many examples of ‘presenting banter’ to get a laugh. Described by a fan of Tony’s presenting style as ‘sardonic’, they’re as follows:
*The anecdote of the male aspie who when asked whether a female looked fat in a dress, replied, “No, you look obese’. Cue audience laughter.
*When describing the aspie chid, who suggests to a neighbour that she wears a hat to cover up her big ears. (Sourced from a Judge Judy book on teaching social skills). Cue laughter.
*When describing an autistic child whose mother is upset, and who isn’t clear on what comfort to offer. To the audience: “If YOU don’t know what’s missing [in the scenario], YOU may need a diagnostic assessment”. Cue laughter.
*When recalling a man from Tony’s clinic, who began complimenting his wife once in possession of Tony’s ‘compliment guide’ [used to help clinicians teach social skills]; but stopped the wife’s compliments, once the guide was lost. Cue laughter.
*The tongue in cheek comment that ‘Cats are autistic dogs’ (cue laughter). While there’s a book called ‘All cats have Asperger Syndrome’ by Kathy Hoopman, whose books are reportedly loved by autistic children, this is the kind of joke that sounds wrong from a non-autistic person.
*Using the ‘we and them’ narrative to describe a child who had assaulted a teacher by poking her with a pencil. “WE (NTs) THINK it – we don’t DO it.” This language would undoubtedly leave the autistic delegates feeling ‘othered’.
(3)There were copious references to Professor’ autistic son Will, whose autism was missed in childhood:
“He goes on and on, and just doesn’t get to the point!”
(When describing his son’s prison sentence). “[At least] we got respite care when he was in prison, and knew where he was.” (Cue laughter). This narrative felt uncomfortable, to a degree.
(4)There were also a number of sweeping generalisations, e.g:
“People with autism interrupt all the time.”
“If you make a mistake, the first person to correct you has autism.”
(The irony of this constructively critical article ‘correcting’ Tony isn’t lost on us!)
A wince-inducing reference to autists being like Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, when describing autistic masking.
The statement that “Autism occurs when you [e.g. the autist] walk out of the room”, meaning that when an autist retreats to their bedroom for solitude, their challenges are reduced. True, but a poor over-simplification, suggesting that socialisation is always the main issue, or stressor.
(5)The statement that parents of autistic adolescents should “Provide a plan or schedule [after the child has left school], as they may not leave their castle [e.g. their room is their safe place, or castle], or may fill their time with Minecraft, or solitude.”
Professor Attwood had already stated that young autists need solitude ‘to feel better’, so it was a shame to suggest that parents need to provide social plans to prevent the aloneness that the teenage autist would actually need, in order to recalibrate. A good point explored further by Tony in the Q&As, but over-simplified in the above sentence.
(6)The (presumably) tongue in cheek generalisation that adolescent female autists may choose either: “Promiscuity, as at least I will be popular – or drugs, as at least I will be happy”, when describing teenage autistic girls as “Either puritanical, or using their sexuality to be popular.” There was for example a teenage autistic delegate in the room, who understandably may have felt downbeat about this impending life forecast.
(7)Using the wrong pro-nouns to describe a transgender woman.
(8)Alluding to the frustrating ‘We are all a little bit autistic’ narrative, when stating: “Autistic characterisations are like a jigsaw of 100 pieces [e.g. 100 autistic traits] – I have never met a person with less than 20 pieces, and never met someone with autism with 100.” (Although carefully noted, this may not be absolutely verbatim; so alluding to neurotypicals as people, rather than autists as people too, was hopefully not the intention here; although another delegate did also pick up on the specific language used here.)
(9)Professor Attwood didn’t specifically mention autistic stimming at all, and made a comment along the lines of, “I don’t like the American stim comment; you [eg. as an autistic individual] do it as its soothing”, seemingly disliking the phrase itself, but not acknowledging stimming’s links to environment, sensory regulation etc. (See below).
Autistic stimming, or ‘self stimulating’ behaviour – calming, satisfying and recalibrating
(10)A brief mention of the ‘Who falls in love with an aspie?’ narrative, and the observance that many wives of autistics are nurses. (This is apparently true in Tony’s clinical experience, but lends kudos to the autist thinking that they will only be loved by someone who wants to repair or nurse them.)
So there we have it – more positive than negatives – a success, surely?
With a general feeling among the #actuallyautistic advocates present that Professor Attwood had toned down the disparagement humour (compared to previous events), the day finished on a good note, when Sarah Jane Harvey of Agony Autie proposed to Tony that he join her, on one of her Vlogs.
Explaining that she didn’t always like his rhetoric towards autistics, Professor Attwood wholeheartedly agreed to the proposal, saying that if autistic individuals wanted to correct him he’d welcome their input. When writer Kate Fox commented on his reduced use of disparagement humour on the day, Professor Attwood explained that “I promised I would, and I did”. We’re not sure to whom he promised, but it is definitely a step in the right direction!
In balance, there was a lot of useful information at the conference presented for parents and clinicians, and plenty of encouraging concepts concerning managing stress and anxiety. The criticisms from #actuallyautistic individuals mainly concern language. (After all, other minorities such as ethnic groups now have more respectful language. This website details the concept of respectful language very well, advising: ‘Be sure to avoid language that stereotypes or patronises’.)
The simple change from the word ‘they’ to either ‘autistics’ or ‘autistic individuals’ would go a long way to aid inclusion, and avoid ‘othering’.
The host organisation (ACAMH) was quick to respond to questions fielded ahead of the event (which was very professionally run), and perhaps were the advocates of Tony using less disparagement humour?! The venue had quiet rooms, roomy seats, plenty of breaks and the sound system was very good – the Q&As were well managed by the hosts, and the live-streaming audience were catered to well. So, on balance? A generally good experience, with a simple request to use more respectful language moving forward, as #autisticsdeservebetter.
NB – edited update – a reader has questioned whether an objection to the word ‘they’ is because it’s a gender neutral pronoun for autistic people, as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’. Just to be clear, that isn’t the issue at all, the reference to ‘they’ and ‘them’ is not gender-related, but related to autistic and non-autistic (neurotypical). So, to clarify, ‘they’ meaning autistic, and ‘we’ or ‘us’ meaning NT.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
We have been asked a few times about ‘stims’, and while we have mentioned them within other articles (see directly below, in an article on autistic meltdown), we thought it would be useful to delve deeper in a single blog post.
Autistic meltdown, or neural high jacking – what is meltdown, how can outsiders deal with it empathetically, and how do autists manage their own meltdowns? (ASD/ASC)
Understanding stims is key to understanding how autists process emotions and sensory input. Stims, and the action of stimming, refers to ‘self stimulating’ behaviours; they’re not limited to autists (many of us twirl our hair, or tap our fingers to an imaginary beat, for example); but most autists stim.
Stims may be used for various reasons; for example in times of anxiety; in periods of happiness or contentment; when the body is in need of regulation; and simply because the individual feels good.
Most people, if they have heard of autism stims, think of hand flapping, which is the stereotypical one used most commonly in the media. But perhaps rightly so, as a repetitive hand movement is a very common stim, in times of dis-regulation, sensory overload or anxiety.
Most autistic individuals stim to some degree; they can be very subtle however, and autists who are late-diagnosed may not even realise that their habitual behaviours are stims. For example, clasping or rubbing one’s hands together, or wrapping hair around a finger.
Here are some examples of physical autistic stimming-
Clapping or flapping the hands, or moving them rhythmically.
Finger clicking or snapping, e.g. with the thumb and third finger.
Beating out a rhythm with the hands or fingers (and feet), to a beat in your head.
Flicking or stroking fingernails.
Playing with jewellery, especially if it has movement, e.g. a ring with a spinning section.
Touching something smoothly tactile, like a watch, a clothing label, or piece of jewellery.
Proprioceptive stims e.g. rocking or moving the body – and as well as a ‘big’ movement, this can be the tiniest movement, for example isolating and clenching a small muscle.
Moving the joints somehow, to achieve a ‘click’ or mobilisation – e.g. moving the joint to the edge of its socket.
Examples of vocal stims can be humming; singing without recognisable words; and making mouth noises (for example sucking on the teeth or cheeks, or clicking the tongue).
Cognitive autism stims
There are also cognitive autistic stims that autists carry out, that seemingly provide some kind of sense of control, comfort or regularity. These could be a particular numerical sum, or counting in a particular formation. (Many autists use echolalia, and sometimes a favoured phrase or number sequence that sounds appealing may be used as a stim.)
There are also other stims, such as: visual stims, e.g. staring at lights or an interesting kinetic picture (like the one at the top of this page), or watching a spinning object; auditory stims, e.g. listening to the same song on a loop; olfactory and oral stims such as sniffing objects or licking and chewing on things; facial tics and features of Tourette syndrome; dermatillomania or picking at the skin (e.g. scabs or hairs), trichotillomania (hair plucking) and also pressure stims – perhaps sitting in a certain way to achieve a sense of pressure.
Self injurious autistic stims
Some individuals may direct a repetitive action on themselves, e.g. hitting their head or face. Stims like this can be detrimental; e.g. in the case of hitting oneself, they are not desirable or helpful in the long term, and can lead to self-harm. In such cases the need to stim may be directed to another object, such as a squeezy toy or boxing punchbag. Using pressure or movement may also be a useful alternative, e.g. pressing the hands against a wall or pressing up from the floor, or bouncing on a Swiss ball. Weighted pressure blankets may also be useful, e.g. to sit or lie under. These ‘tools’ may work to help redress sensory dis-regulation.
Letting off steam
Although some proponents of behavioural training seemingly seek to reduce stims, and frame them as some kind of antisocial behaviour, in fact there is nothing wrong with autistic stims. Remember that autistic individuals may have problems not only with processing feelings, but also sharing their emotions in the expected way. Stims are very often a way of putting an emotion into a physical representation.
So, the above everyday examples of behavioural stims are perfectly normal and acceptable, especially in children who are finding a place in the world; stims should not be discouraged.
They are simply a way of recalibrating, finding a sense of calm, and satisfying an inbuilt need for repetition. “Autistics are easily overloaded, and simply need to release tension more frequently. When I stim, I often feel like an old fashioned boiler letting off pressure; sometimes in tiny bursts, sometimes in huge belches of steam,” writes Kirsten Lindsmith.
Stims can be valuable communicative information, if an autist finds (in that moment) talking difficult. A stim can indicate rising anxiety, for example. This is valuable information for family members accompanying a young autistic child somewhere, and a potential sign that the environment could be stressful.
In the workplace
In situations such as the workplace where autistic stims are not necessarily encouraged or accepted, there are ways to make them less noticeable; e.g. there are many fidget toys or gadgets like pens, chewy stim toys and pieces of tactile jewellery that can divert attention.
Many autistic women for example enjoy having smooth, manicured nails that fulfil a nice sensory need, and touching the nails can be very discreet.
(NB, follower JFC has pointed out that our question: ‘It would be interesting to find out to what extent smoking and vaping is used by autists, to satisfy the need to stim; especially in the workplace’, could be misleading, in that smoking indoors is banned. It was more pondering the concept of the Smoking Break, a social gathering that takes place outside, and whether some autists may smoke or vape to satisfy a stimming need, while also navigating the social landscape. We’d welcome any feedback from smokers/vapers on this matter!)
What else causes autistic stimming?
Sensory challenges are often cited as big causative factors for stims, as the stimming can create a tactile input (e.g. flicking a muslin or blanket, or a clothes label). The action can help self-soothe and calm the individual, if the stim is linked to anxiety or over / under stimulation from noise, lights, socialisation etc.
It’s proposed that stimming can actually cause the release of beta-endorphins in the body, which then causes a feeling of ‘numbness’ from sensory overload, or plain old pleasure.
The main hypotheses and known causes for stimming are: blocking out excess sensory input (in overstimulation); managing emotions; providing extra sensory input (in understimulation); reducing pain; and self-regulating.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
We have read and referenced clinical psychologist Tony Attwood’s work here on Spectra.blog previously. He’s created useful videos on identifying autism spectrum disorders, and we wrote very enthusiastically about how he ‘frames Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism in a positive light.’ He advocates the term ‘discovery ‘over ‘diagnosis’, saying: ‘[The word] ‘discovery’ concludes that this [autistic] person possesses admirable qualities, abilities, and/or talents.’
Our author Kathy Carter was impressed with Professor Attwood’s focus on autists’ strengths; however, it was recently brought to our attention that he’s also renowned for emphasising false stereotypes about autists, and getting laughs at their (our) expense.
NB – this post was written ahead of the talk: ‘Tony Attwood – What you need to know about Autism’, on May fifteenth, 2019, in Sheffield. (Photo below of Professor Attwood by ACMAH).
In short, he DID reduce his ‘disparagement humour’ and was MORE respectful to autists. You can read our balanced report below. We still have concerns, however!
“I promised I would change and I did” – did Professor Tony Attwood’s autism conference pacify the #actuallyautistic community?
A ‘cold touch of affection’?!
One of the most alarming viewpoints Professor Attwood has previously expressed is that autistic mothers, while they can be (in Tony’s words): ‘Remarkable guardians and supporters of [their] children’, ‘They have’, again in his words: ‘The cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one; and so, we often find that an ‘aspie’ mum marries an extreme neurotypical dad, and so it is Dad who gives the affection; so when a child is upset and falls over, who do they run to? They may run to Dad, not mum.’
(Source – transcript of an ABC radio interview with broadcaster Richard Fidler, on Shona Davison’s website).
In one sweeping statement, he’s disparaged every autistic mother out there!
Is joking about marginalised people OK?
A misguided view? ‘Autistic mothers have the cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one’.
The ‘cold touch of affection’ comment was seemingly not made as a joke as such; more a (misguided) statement of fact (in Professor Attwood’s opinion); however, he’s well-versed in using humour to attack autists.
Writer, broadcaster and performer Kate Fox wrote an open letter to Professor Attwood following her dismay at comments made during his talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference. Kate and others believe Professor Attwood deliberately makes jokes at autists’ expense to gain laughs AT them, not WITH them. She quoted social psychologist Thomas Ford’s work on ‘disparagement humour’, agreeing that: ‘When marginalised people are joked about, it gives other people a sense that it’s okay to disparage them too.’
Another writer, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, wrote dispairingly about Professor Attwood when writing about a talk he made in America. ‘He used humor about autistic people, primarily… An example is when he talked about how he knows when a parent of a child is autistic, [when] he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child, and ‘puts on his robot voice’, to imitate the [autistic] parent.’ (Source: ‘Making a mockery of disability’.)
‘Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, [and] to be mocked,” Cohen-Rottenberg writes.
“It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism…”
A further writer, Paula Sanchez, said, again in response to Professor Attwood’s talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference: ‘The worst part of the day was Tony Attwood. His talks were chock-full of jokes at our expense… oh, how amusing we are; oh how the audience laughed at his quips about suicide, special interests, IQ, virginity and robots. Attwood’s presentations came across as exploitative and offensive. It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism.’ (Source: ‘How not to do an autism conference’.)
He knows that autists may not take the joke well…
On his own website, Professor Attwood quotes a study on youths, that states: ‘The adolescents with autism had significantly poorer comprehension of cartoons and jokes. Subjects with autism had difficulty handling surprise and coherence within humorous narratives.’ So, he acknowledges that ‘Individuals with autism have… difficulties in integrating content across narratives and discourse’, and that ‘Adults with high-functioning autism may not achieve a feeling of surprise, if and when they understand the punch line. If they do achieve a feeling of surprise, it may not be converted to one of humour.’
He knows that autists may not take a joke well. He also knows that, as indicated by his comments regarding knowing when a parent of a child is autistic too, that autism often runs in families, and therefore, that many parents attending his talks may also be autistic.
So why does Professor Attwood continue to joke about autistic individuals IN FRONT OF THEM?
Professor Attwood is increasingly raising awareness about female autists, and has written about important subjects including girls with Asperger’s-type presentations of autism: ‘Slipping through the diagnostic net, and being at risk from developing Anorexia Nervosa, due routines and rituals around food.’ He’s supported the author Liane Holliday Willey in the promotion of her book ‘Safety Skills for Asperger Women’ (and wrote the foreword). He’s also got a way with words, and uses them to his advantage.
But given his apparent support for females, how can Tony Attwood reinforce the terrible stereotype that autistic mothers have ‘The cold touch of affection’? It harks back to Kanner’s early thoughts on ‘Refrigerator Mothers’, now outdated. As neither a diagnosed autistic individual nor a mother himself, it’s a terrible sweeping statement for Professor Attwood to make, and upsetting for the parents who look to him for guidance and inspiration.
A 2019 autism conference
This month (May 2019), Professor Attwood is presenting a conference titled: ‘Tony Attwood – What you need to know about Autism’, (cleverly dropping his usual references to ‘Asperger’s’, now that the term has been merged diagnostically with ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’), in Sheffield. It’s hosted by the ‘Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health’, and it will be interesting to see whether his brand of humour is utilised there, and even endorsed by an organisation pertaining to promote good mental health. Spectra.blog’s curator Kathy Carter is attending the event, along with other #actuallyautistic advocates and writers, including Shona Davison, who has personally crusaded to highlight Professor Attwood’s disparagement humour techniques.
Kathy will be reporting from the event and along with her #actuallyautistic peers, trying to redress the balance, and ‘calling Professor Attwood out’ on his potentially unprofessional and derogatory attitudes, and any mis-judged presentation techniques.
To conclude.. you could argue that we ‘Aspies’ ‘Just don’t get the joke’. Or you could argue that it’s BULLYING… #autisticsdeservebetter
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts.