Autism and the social change group: Part 2

After the workshop I participated in at the end of March, I’ve continued a dialogue with Caroline from Insider Autism Training.

We spoke about ways in which the training could have been made more experiential. That led us to the question of “experiencing what?”. Experiencing autism is clearly not possible, and we agreed that there’s something distasteful about asking NTs (neuro-typicals as we’re known in autistic circles) to ‘pretend’ to be autistic. That’s not to say that there aren’t experiential activities that can help raise awareness. More on that below. The conversation homed in on 2 themes – experiencing alienation and empathy and led us to talk about diversity rather than solutions.

Everyone has some experience of alienation – feeling out of their depth socially or culturally, even if just fleetingly, for example that first day in a new job or at a new school, or travelling in a foreign country, or the first Christmas spent with a partner’s family. We can tap into those experiences to give people a sense of the difficulty faced by those on the autistic spectrum in reading the unwritten social signals others are fluent in. In doing so we can begin to get a feeling for the experience of the autistic. Of course this sort of fleeting alienation is not the same thing that those on the autistic spectrum experience. It’s not even close. NTs have the luxury of knowing that the new school/new job scenario is the cause of their anxiety.

Caroline has been playing with other activities:

“I ran a workshop the other day where I divided the  participants in groups of about 5 with where one of the group was sat with their back to the group, they then had to discuss a topic as a group. The aim was for the person with their back turned to experience some of what it is like to miss out on body language and the others to notice how differently they treated someone they knew without body language – it worked brilliantly –  the turned round person’s description of their experience (“I didn’t know when to say something”, “I could not judge pauses”, “I felt ignored”) matched almost exactly the difficulties autistic people have articulated about being in groups. The rest of the group confessed to being aware that they were ignoring the turned around person, or even referring to them as if they were not there, but that awareness did not enable them to change their behaviour”

Empathy is harder. Whilst it might be laudable to work towards NTs experiencing empathy with the autistic, empathy is itself a contentious issue in autistic circles. Talking about empathy and autism rings alarm bells because there is a widely held (and largely incorrect ) belief that autistic people are empathy-deficient. I’m assured that things are much more complex than this and that many autistics are over-empathic.

The temptation for many facilitators is then to try and ‘fix’ the problem when they encounter it in groups. But solutions are not easy and it might be best to try instead to hone awareness. There are some behaviours typical of autism that can exasperate others in a group. And whilst it’s not impossible for autistics to learn and modify their behaviour it’s not going to happen in the course of a 90 minute meeting. Nor should the modification of behaviour be one-way. The NT community has a lot of work to do.

That’s not to say there are no solutions. In the workshop we heard how for some autistics there’s a real need to express their thinking immediately, and patiently waiting isn’t realistic. One suggestion from a participant on the autistic spectrum was to find ways to allow people to write down their thoughts in the moment, and then bring them in when the flow of the conversation permits – a parking space flipchart, a stack of notepaper or post-it notes.
But thinking in terms of solutions could be a distraction from the real issue – tolerance of difference and diversity.

Caroline reminded me of the terminology “neurodiversity”. We’re familiar with other, more visible forms of diversity such as gender, race, physical ability, but there are invisible forms of diversity and autism is just one. It may be that we can’t ‘fix’ behaviours that cause neuro-typicals annoyance. Even to think that way labels those behaviours as ‘wrong’ in some way. What we can do is try to strengthen our tolerance and give neurodiversity the same credence and respect we would any other diversity issue.
Let’s finish on a short piece from Caroline which neatly brings some of these themes together:

“I heard a story from Ann about training a group committed to encouraging diversity.  Anne noticed a group member, Richard, behaved in ways that led Ann to suspect he was autistic.  Anne was surprised to see how the other members of the group cut Richard absolutely no slack.  It would not be exaggerating to say they shunned and excluded him.  The rolled their eyes when he spoke, did not acknowledge or respond to his contributions, but just continued the discussion as if he had not spoken.
Anne saw that Richard was dedicated to the work of the group, made reasonable points and desperately wanted to be included. Yet he was being exclude by a group of decent people who were vocal about how committed they were to diversity.  Anne could see that Richard could be irritating, he talked in a monotone, repeated points he had already made, picked up on tiny mistakes made by others and sometimes  interrupted others.
Anne felt very uneasy with the situation but was unsure how to address it.  She did not feel she could it would be helpful to state her take on the situation “It seems to me you have an autistic person here – this is an opportunity to respond appropriately and celebrate the diversity you already have within your group”.  If she voiced her perception of the situation in this way Anne would have been potentially shaming Richard, and adding to, rather than ameliorating his sense of alienation.
The reaction of the group to Richard begs the question of what they think they want to encourage by encouraging diversity.  Do they understand that diversity is more than window dressing, goes deeper than looking exotic but brings with it the need to engage with real differences and real difficulties.
Engaging with the challenge Richard’s way of relating brought to the group could have resulted in an examination of working methods.  A more explicit structure to meetings, the use of a “talking stick , a protocol whereby nobody could speak twice until everybody had had the chance to speak once and a summing up that acknowledged all contributions might well have helped.  It might have enabled Richard to be a more constructive group member and increased clarity about how the group was functioning.   Difference and diversity can bring a seam of richness to our endeavours, but for this to happen we need to be willing to question and continually adjust our ways of working, and engage with differences that are more than skin deep.”

More of Caroline’s writing can be found on her website. Many thanks to her for the sharing that has enriched this post.