We wanted to write an article about not only interactions between autistic individuals and the people around them (of any neurology); but more importantly, how we as autistics deal with these interactions.
Specifically, this article looks at some of the negative aspects of communication, when you are autistic. Sorry to focus on the negative, for a moment – but it warrants confrontation and consideration!
“Other people of all neurologies may find you as an autistic individual irritating; it’s a bitter pill to swallow, when you’re just being yourself…”
A difference in processing mechanisms (and therefore communication styles) is one of the key facets of being autistic, and it goes hand-in-hand with challenges in the field of socialisation.
Let’s be blunt here – if you are autistic, other people of all neurologies, not just neurotypical (NT), may find you odd / quirky / annoying / irritating. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’re just being yourself.
Here’s why I think autists can seem irritating to other individuals: (Read about the author of this blog HERE).
First impressions. As detailed further below, autistics can be fairly expressionless, or produce looks that are difficult to interpret by neurotypical individuals (NTs). This means others’ first impressions of us can be confused, and we may appear rude, or not interested in making a connection.
NTs’ ‘programming’ – described by disability rights advocate Aiyana Bailin as follows: “One of the biggest social difficulties faced by autistic people is neurotypical people’s reluctance to interact with those they perceive as ‘different’.”
Our quirks – for example, an autist’s hyper-focussed attention to detail, their focus on justice and punctuality, or a special interest that they seem over-interested in, to others.
Our behaviours – eg.: an autist who stims when others see it as being inappropriate set them out as being different or odd. A dis-interest in social chit-chat and conventions seems distant. Our differences in processing mean we may ‘lose’ key words en-route from brain to mouth, or miss a conversation’s meaning.
It’s Not OK of course. It’s not OK for autists to constantly feel belittled, or that as they can’t get their interactions ‘right’ with people, what’s the point of trying? It is not OK for NTs to roll their eyes at their autistic colleagues if they’re pedantic about a certain issue, and it’s not OK to leave the autist out of a workplace lunchtime drinks session, because the autist ‘goes on about’ a special interest longer than their peers may do. But it happens. And it is foolhardy not to acknowledge that these interactions and challenges happen. More than that, as an autist, knowing WHY people are irritated by us helps us understand the process, and feel less of a failure. Communication is a two way street, and there are simply many mixed messages and social communication differences going on at any given time.
(And, it isn’t just peers who make such observations – a TEACHER in the USA recently awarded an 11-year-old autistic boy the ‘most annoying male’ award, at an Indiana school.
Akalis Castejon is non-verbal, and reportedly, it was a special education teacher at Bailly Preparatory Academy who gave the tongue in cheek award.)
It has been proposed that a lot of the beliefs we hold about people, and the feelings we have about them, may be made within just a tenth of a second of meeting them; the way we approach conversing with people is almost subconscious.
One study by Princeton psychologists in America studied judgments from facial appearance, focusing on attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness. It concluded that there’s a fraction of a second’s time to make such judgements. BUT, autists have difficulty making appropriate facial expressions at the right times, according to a 2018 study on autistic facial expression, which used analysis of 39 studies. ‘[Autistics] may remain expressionless, or produce looks that are difficult to interpret,’ reported Spectrum News.
Everyone essentially gets a ‘feeling’ about somebody upon meeting (or just observing them), and we choose to converse with them, or we choose to avoid them – this is happening in a split-second. Let’s re-visit the American study on attractiveness, likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness. The autistic individual’s lack of expression is likely to be one reason why, based on first impressions, other individuals may not get a clear impression of whether the autist is likeable.
After the first impression – more reasons why neurotypicals may be irritated by autists
Autistics are almost universally used to being treated without respect by many people around them (again, this is NOT OK, but it happens); and to be blunt, we autists CAN annoy people.
If for example, as an autistic, you are the organised, scheduling-obsessed Aspie (Asperger Syndrome) type, other people, especially neurotypicals, may sometimes find your hyperfocussed attention to detail and focus on justice and punctuality overwhelming. Their priorities are just different At That Moment In Time.
Conversely, if you’re an autistic who lacks some executive functioning skills, and for example struggles to keep your house as tidy as you would like, or is challenged by punctuality, other people may feel that you lack personal pride, or are too selfish to even get to a venue on time. (They won’t potentially see or understand the challenges you faced getting to the venue at all, or maybe even getting dressed, getting up that morning and stringing a coherent sentence together. They’re also unlikely to consider the downsides of the interaction, and the autistic social hangover you may experience thereafter).
It works both ways – NTs can be annoying too
It works both ways of course – if you are an autistic individual on a fast processing day, planning, scheduling, imagining and ruminating to a fast-paced musical soundtrack in your head, you will probably find the typical (but relatively low, when compared to yourself) processing speed of the neurotypical people around you infuriatingly slow.
(Read our blog on Fast Brain Days directly below..)
Aspie-superpower days – why autists may be on an ‘autistic spectrum within a spectrum’? We look at the different ‘autistic’ days…
And as a general rule, on this Fast Brain day, you may find the incessant need of others to chitchat and pass the time of day over trivial matters an annoying form of Time Stealing; especially if you are feeling sensitive and overwhelmed. It is as if one person’s on slow-motion, and one’s going super-fast – and the ‘slow-mo’ person can seem infuriating, and their reactions and mental connections infuriating. (If the autist is the one on ‘slow-mo’, this can probably seem frustrating too, from others’ points of view.)
Belittled and bullied
Autistic people, like many underrepresented groups, are often marginalised, belittled, ignored and even bullied. And our combined penchant for repetitive processes and our hyperfocus on certain things, which could be described by other people as ‘going on about something’ or obsessing about something, means another form of bullying can take place, if our actions seem annoying or irritating.
This bulling is the belittling or disparagement of our feelings and needs. Examples include: ‘Come on, it’s not that important, pull yourself together.’ ‘Stop going on about it, there’s other people in the world with bigger problems…’ etc etc. Belittling or squashing someone’s emotional responses regularly just because behaviourally they don’t fit into the ‘norm’, is an every day occurrence for autists. And it can become bullying, if it is repeated regularly.
Cloud cuckoo land
In an ideal world, and this is something many autism and advocates rightly press for, there would be widespread acceptance of people of all neurologies, as well as ethnicities, abilities and genders – we would all be accepting of each other and our quirks, we would make exceptions, we wouldn’t hold grudges, we wouldn’t make snap judgements, we would ‘let things go’, and the world would be a wonderful place whereby everyone was respectful. NTs wouldn’t be irritated by autists who are just being themselves, and little boys with different neurologies would not get presented with patronising ‘awards’ by the teachers who are there to educate and inspire them!
However, this is not currently the case, and seems unlikely to be the case, even as many individuals are being enlightened about what autism is, and how autistic individuals should be respectfully treated.
A double element of social and communicative difficulties
(A further complication that should be noted regarding communication is that autism runs in families, and autistic individuals are often naturally drawn to other neurodivergent individuals as friends and partners; so there is often a double element of social and communicative difficulties going on between the autist and the other individual, if they are autistic or neurodivergent too! Eg they may be battling their own communication challenges, and their own sense of justice, and being right!)
How can we improve this mis-communication?
Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others – READ MORE BELOW.
It seems like such a long journey to get (as a society) our forms of communication and our understanding of different neurologies right. For example, autists who are panicked, stressed or overwhelmed may show behaviours that are thought to be aggressive, leading to many instances of police involvement for simple matters that could have been prevented with some autism staff training.
So, what to do about this issue of communication, especially if you are an undiagnosed, or a late diagnosed autistic individual? You will almost certainly have spent your life feeling different – many describe it as being like an alien on the wrong planet – and perhaps you will have spent years constantly trying to fit in and appease people, wondering WHY you’re annoying others, and not really knowing why.
(Masking is of course a massive and concerning issue, leading to many mental health issues for autistics, or at the very least, health concerns, because in order to fit in, many autistics camouflage their difficulties, and essentially try to appear more neurotypical.)
Autistic masking – everything you wanted to know about ‘passing’ or ‘camouflaging’ as an autist
Many autistic individuals attest to feeling a widespread sense of failure
A sense of needing validation, or trying to appease people, is second nature to a lot of autistic people; the author of this blog has spent her whole life like this, with a sense of: ‘I don’t like confrontation, I want to please.’ Personally speaking, I generally try to show respect other people, hence I feel a great sense of injustice and hurt when other people don’t respect me back, or take into account my feelings. Often, I know from their response I have annoyed them, but I am not sure how. Literally by not saying a word, or by saying a word, but obviously the wrong one, I have irritated someone, when all I wanted to do was go about my day! This feeling is commonplace, and leads to a widespread sense of failure – many autistic individuals will attest to feeling like this.
A leaning to victimhood
I think what we are feeling in such instances is a failure to be neurotypical, which of course can never be achieved. One of the only ways to deal with this leaning to victimhood (‘Why am I always getting it wrong? Why do my friends and family not understand me? Poor me….’), eg. feeling that one’s feelings are being ignored, is to develop a Sod It attitude. (You can use a stronger word here, at least in your head. Sometimes, the strength of curse word can actually help with the personal strength that’s required!)
Yes (like all humans!), autistic people can be challenging, irritating and annoying, due to general miscommunication and preconceptions between multiple parties; and yes, other people often do not understand our intent; and yes, our quirks and our behaviours can lead to mistreatment. But if people are doing this on a regular basis, whether they be associates, colleagues, friends, family members, partners or whatever, maybe it would be beneficial to take ownership of one’s life and choices, and in the words of Keala Settle, say This Is Me. (‘I’m marching on to the beat I drum; I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me…’ ‘This Is Me’, by Justin Paul / Benj Pasek.)
This Is Me
It’s our nature as autistics to ruminate on things – our neurology needs repetition, and thrives on cycles; therefore, if people have treated us badly, it’s common to ruminate on the situation. This cyclical issue means we can end up constantly using a negative voice about ourselves, and almost substantiating or validating the treatment that we have been given. When in fact, what would really help is to put the matter to bed, move on, accept that people do not necessarily understand or support our autistic selves, and focus on being the best we can be. Being ourselves, with authority; and that Sod It attitude.
Most autistic individuals as they learn more about autism themselves, endeavour to educate those around them about autism. This is partly to make their own lives easier and enlighten their friend or family member, but in general, also to spread the word and educate the wider community about the differences between NTs and autists, simply to provide understanding.
Autistics do matter, we are valid, and we do deserve respect!
That is why so many blogs like this one exist, as autistic advocates strive to help develop further understanding, acceptance and awareness of autism. However, if after this stage of enlightenment, loved ones or friends are still treating you badly as an autist, citing you as being irritating and annoying, or not being supportive of what is important to you, or are being dismissive of your needs as an autist, is it time to break some ties? (Of course, where friends and family are concerned, this is easier said than done, and may require professional help; for example, talking therapies.)
But really, we do deserve better – it is time for autistics to take ownership of our needs and use this Sod It attitude. We do matter, we are valid, and we do deserve respect!
So to conclude, we started this article by proposing that autists can seem irritating to other individuals, due to confused first impressions, neurotypicals’ reluctance to interact with people they perceive as ‘different’, as well as autists’ quirks and behaviours that don’t seem typical, or to ‘fit in’ with the majority.
And we haven’t suggested any ‘tools or tips’ for appearing less annoying or irritating; rather proposed that accepting one’s differences and developing a Sod It attitude is sometimes key to moving forward, and being accepting of one’s autistic self.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog 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!
(Our opening picture shows Ethan Fineshriber, a leading American martial artist with a second-degree black belt, who fights in the Extreme Martial Arts black belt boys’ division of the American Taekwondo Association. Pic by the ATA.)
One common trait among autists is an autistic special interest, or obsession. (Although the word obsession can have negative connotations – quite rightly so, in some instances of course!); so ‘hyper focussed interest’ is maybe a nicer phrase).
Repetitive behaviours and rigid thought patterns are after all a key element of Autism Spectrum Neurologies and Asperger Syndrome, and were together part of the ‘triad of impairments‘ that was used to describe the main challenges that autists face. So it’s no surprise that autists can become hyper focussed on a subject.
Repetition and patterns
Anne-Hegarty – pic by ITV
Autists tend to thrive on repetition and patterns, so anything with a regular element to it appeals to the autistic brain; for example collecting certain items. The ‘collection’ and ‘special interest’ elements often intertwine, meaning autists develop real expertise in their area of interest. (Collecting information can become an interest in itself, for example enjoying ‘quizzing’, like TV’s Anne Hegarty.)
Many autistics go on to become leading experts in that field, and if extensive practise is required, for example to perfect a sporting discipline, again the autist’s penchant for repetition serves them well (like Ethan Fineshriber, pictured.). It’s not uncommon for the interest to be slightly off field or unusual (in the eyes of NT people especially).
When obsessions turn ‘unhealthy’
So, what of the word obsession? This sometimes signifies the interest has reached unhealthy levels – but in whose eyes?
There are many instances where a special interest (in someone of any neurology, not just in an autistic person), becomes unhealthy – one example is computer gaming. Professor Tony Attwood at his 2019 ACAMH ‘What you need to know about Autism’ presentation touched upon the subject, explaining that while computer gaming can be a tool to help cope with anxiety, and is a useful ‘thought blocker, gaming can be very addictive, and that working with the individual before they get to an obsessive or addicted level is key. For autists who struggle with ‘real world’ socialisation, the non-face-to-face world of gaming can be very appealing.
(An obvious route to support expertise in gaming, or computing in general, is to embark on a career in the field. This allows the autistic individual to further their studies but keep up the interest. Thank goodness Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokemon, maintained his special teenage interest in arcade games, as he now has a very popular and successful business empire. (Silicon Valley in the USA is awash with autistic individuals, and they’re often specifically recruited).
Unhealthy patterns of autistic behaviour
Sometimes, obsessive behaviours can lead to unhealthy patterns such as counting calories and eating disorders, or self medicating with alcohol or drugs. (Sterotypies’ like trichotillomania (hair pulling) and dermatillomania (skin picking) can also develop, which can be unhealthy).
It is therefore important for families to be vigilant for any mental health or repetitive / addiction-type issues, and involve relevant specialist clinicians.
Obsessions or hyper focussed interests can also extend to people, and this can also sometimes be unhealthy – eg. forming an attraction or relationship that is unrequited.
Autistic special interests – a haven of safety and expertise
However, for the most part, special interests are just that – a haven of safety and expertise. A joy! A feeling of validation! A sense of having found a tribe (of similar enthusiasts)! Autistic special interests are often cause for celebration.
Professor Tony Attwood at his 2019 ACAMH ‘What you need to know about Autism’ presentation said that autistic special interests can be:
A means of relaxation, pleasure; [A way of] using knowledge to overcome fear; [A way of] keeping anxiety under control; [A way of] ‘thought blocking’; An energiser when exhausted or sad; A way of offering motivation and conceptualisation.
Left: Chris Packham, pictured promoting his ‘Asperger’s and Me’ documentary. Pic by the BBC.
As autists struggle with communication and socialisation to varying degrees, an interest can also be a way of meeting like-minded people. It can introduce new social interactions and develop social skills, and boost the individual’s confidence. Like many things, a special interest in an autistic individual can be cyclical, eg can change and be replaced over time. So if parents are concerned that a child’s collection is unusual, it may pass. (Or, it may develop into a thriving career, like naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, who was obsessed with the natural world as a child. Chris built up many collections that others may have thought odd, like animal remains).
Stuck in a loop
Another element which falls under the same category is obsessive thought patterns. Autists are often accused of ‘not letting things go’, or ruminating over something that seems inconsequential to others. (This can link to obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD; which can be a co-existing condition of Autism Spectrum Neurologies.)
READ MORE HERE –
Co-morbidity and autism spectrum conditions, or ASCs (ASD, Asperger’s)
Whilst this ‘stuck record’ may be frustrating for others, (eg. if the autistic repeatedly talks about and frets over a conversation they had, and wonders if someone was upset; or is feeling troubled by a confrontation when they felt bullied, and continually verbalises their feelings); it’s crushing for the autist.
The thought process does become like a loop or stuck record, and continually plays, intruding on everything else. It can lead to impulsivity – eg ‘having it out’ with a person, making an official complaint about a service, or unnecessarily breaking ties with a friend or colleague.
There’s no definitive way to break the autistic pattern or cycle, although training one’s brain to recognise ‘stuck’ patterns can help. (For someone of any neurology!)
Recognising other accompanying stress-related signs, such as feelings of anxiety, butterflies in the tummy, higher heart rate, etc. Or an increased need to stim. If one identifies the ‘stuck record’ as a sign or symptom, it can be easier to look at it objectively.
Taking a set number of deep breaths and repeating a reassuring phrase.
Changing the environment, even if it’s moving to another room. (If sensory issues are exacerbating things, a quieter or less busy area may be beneficial.)
Undertaking some exercise, even a brisk walk, or jogging on the spot, to physiologically alter one’s state.
Using some kind of sensory activity to distract the brain, maybe using pressure, like a standing press-up against a wall, or a press-up in the floor. Similarly, bouncing on a trampoline or hitting a punch bag can help with recalibration.
Writing down the issue on paper and acknowledging that it’s now ‘out’, and has been dealt with. (One could even create a worry postbox for the letter – ideal for children.)
‘Stop going on about it!’
For a third party, it is rarely useful to tell the autist that their issue is annoying. (Eg. ‘Stop going on about it! It doesn’t matter, surely?‘). Sometimes with a child, it can be useful to let the ‘loop’ run its course, or help them with distraction techniques and mindfulness.
In anyone (of any age or neurology), helping them work though the obsessive thought, and find a solution, can help. Identifying the issue on a traffic light system of concern (red, amber and green), or a ‘cool to hot’ temperature gauge of concern, may benefit the autist, in terms of self regulation. Keeping a diary may also help, especially as a form of reflection, and to recognise that a former issue is now rectified.
It’s important for third parties to try to respect the individual’s neurology, and accept that patterns, sameness and hyper-focus are usually key aspects of the autist’s personality and make-up. And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; maybe it’s time to learn more about the special interest too?!
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Neurologies, or Asperger’s; 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; 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.
It is still surprising how often one sees the autism puzzle piece. It’s a contentious issue in the field of autism – the puzzle piece is used as a logo to promote autism products, charities, entities and awareness events.
Conceived in 1963 by Gerald Gasson, a parent and board member for the National Autistic Society (or NAS, formerly The Society for Autistic Children), the puzzle was used as the board reportedly believed that autistic people suffered from a ‘puzzling’ condition. The NAS no longer uses it.
Many individuals nowadays object to the puzzle piece’s use in autism awareness campaigns; public opinion is fairly divided, however.
Here’s our view. The people opposing the jigsaw puzzle piece find it patronising, as if autistic individuals are part of a big puzzle that needs to be fixed. it also has connotations with an American organisation who arguably have done very little for autism acceptance.
“Bright, primary colours are hardly conducive to people with sensory challenges…”
Further criticisms about the jigsaw puzzle logo are that it is invariably shown in bright primary colours, thus linking it to children, when autism is in fact a neurology of people of all ages. Furthermore, bright, primary colours are hardly conducive to people with sensory challenges!
On the other hand, there are there many people who really don’t have an opinion about the puzzle piece one way or another, or even quite like its depiction of a puzzle. Some people would argue that autism is indeed puzzling, and that the puzzle pieces represent the concept of fitting together or fitting in.
Although (judging by discussions on social media, at least), opinion does seem fairly evenly split (perhaps down to a lack of education as to WHY objectors are offended by the logo!), to generalise, it seems that most objectors to the puzzle piece are autistic adults, while those less offended are parents of autistic children, or those working in the field of autism who aren’t autistic themselves.
But in this enlightened time, it does seem sensible to move onto a more widely excepted logo with less historically negative links; for example the infinity logo, which represents diversity, and is much more widely preferred.
Recently, some autumn organisations have changed their marketing materials as a direct result of autistic individuals enlightening them as to why the puzzle pieces used may cause offence; a very positive step!
(Also, don’t take our word for it – a study titled: ‘Do puzzle pieces and autism puzzle piece logos evoke negative associations?’ which researched public perception and was published in the journal ‘Autism’ (Autism: 2018 Feb; 22(2): 118–125.) stated: ‘If an autism organization’s intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is to evoke negative associations, then the use of puzzle-piece imagery is apt. If, instead, an autism organization’s intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is not meant to devalue autistic persons, but, quite the opposite, to celebrate [autistic persons], our results suggest that puzzle-piece imagery should probably be avoided.’)
Light it up…….
Along the same lines as our observations about the puzzle piece, it is worth noting here that many autistic individuals are not fans of the ‘light it up blue’ campaigns that arise each spring, around the time of autism awareness month. Various buildings, normally backlit with plain lights, have blue filters added at the time of the campaign, as some kind of ‘tribute to’, or ‘to promote awareness of’ autism.
The origins of the concept lie with the same aforementioned American organisation that has arguably done little to promote autism acceptance.
The majority of autistic individuals (seemingly especially in the UK), who know of its origins, do NOT support the LIUB campaign, with many successfully asking project organisers who adopt the ‘light it up blue’ concept to change the filter colours, to support the neurodiversity movement.
Awareness campaigns don’t generally educate anyone about autism
In conclusion, what #actuallyautistic advocates and many families of autists crave is acceptance. All of the ‘awareness’ elements like dated puzzle piece logos and campaigns like ‘light it up blue’ do, is enhance awareness that autism exists. They don’t generally educate anyone about autism and acceptance of neurodiversity. They’re sometimes accompanied with stories of parents ‘bravely revealing’ their child is autistic, or tales of an individual ‘suffering with autism’; e.g. unhelpful language that does nothing for true awareness of the fact that autism is a lifelong processing difference.
Incidentally, the way we are exposed to autism isn’t helped by the lack of really positive influencers in the media and on social media. We will all come into contact with hundreds of autists in our lifetime; autistic individuals are represented by our families, our children’s teachers, our work colleagues, etc. Everyday autistic people getting on with their lives.
A step forward for the autism community
However, in the media, references to autism are more commonly the aforementioned ‘celeb’ who ‘bravely’ discusses their autistic family member. (Not that we believe that this exposure and ambassadorship is intrinsically a bad thing; of course it isn’t – however, it is the negative language used, usually by presenters or journalists, that sometimes irks.).
(Of course, there are SOME excellent advocates and influencers around – very many #actuallyautistic bloggers, and also a select number of high profile media people – see our ‘influencer feature’ below, which includes the fabulous Greta Thunberg…)
Autistic influencers – celebrating high-profile individuals forging a positive path to raise awareness and boost education about autism (Asperger’s / ASC / ASD)
BUT, more well-informed presenters and journalists, more #actuallyautustic advocates in the spotlight, (especially on TV), and more education all-round, in terms of acceptable ‘awareness’ campaigns and marketing assets, would definitely be a step forward for the autism community.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog 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!