My book chapter is out!

I am delighted to announce that the chapter I wrote for Senses of Focusing (Vol. II) is out in print now, and available by clicking this link

The chapter is titled ‘Writing at the Edge’ and looks at how language interacts with our psyche to develop our sense of the world in profound ways. It brings together the ideas of Eugene T. Gendlin and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. If anyone wants to talk poetry and the mind, do get in touch.

Because it is Autistic Pride Day

I have a suggestion for employers⏤a quick-fix for improving working conditions for autistic staff would be to have a sensory quiet room: this would be a designated space where autistic staff could go to chill out, recharge and recalibrate; in fact, this could be a space for all staff to de-stress. Such a space should be a key part of the well-being agenda of an organisation, as well as a fundamental move towards neurodivergent inclusivity.

OK. This is my vision. All organisations⏤I am thinking primarily of universities as I write this, but would work for all largish workplaces⏤would have a room set aside which was kitted out with soft seating, soft surfaces, low lights (in my mind’s eye I see fairy lights but not the twinkling kind), white noise (or whale noises?) playing quietly from unobtrusively placed speakers. Maybe there would even be a nap area, or blackout cubes. There might be sensory toys. Staff could go there any time they felt overwhelmed⏤or anytime they liked, that would be better⏤to just be in blissful quiet. For neurodivergent staff this would be an accommodation, an adjustment (I will say more about this in a minute) and for neurotypical staff it would provide an opportunity to destress.

Does this sound indulgent? It is not. Now that office space is frequently shared or open-plan, working at work⏤making the assumption that there will be an other side to the pandemic⏤can feel intolerable for autistic people: while headphones can go some way in mitigating office noise, there is still the light and the activity and the general buzziness of the workplace to contend with. Autistic people have thrived (in most cases) on working-from-home⏤suddenly we have capacity to make our own accommodations to make our environments calm. What autistics tend to do when working-from-work is to seek out tiny boltholes where we can hide ourselves for brief periods, so we can regulate⏤so we can avoid burning-out and melting-down. Typically these places are cleaning cupboards and accessible toilets. Take that in. Autistic people are forced to lock themselves in toilets for portions of the day just so we can be at work. I hope this makes the point that having a sensory quiet room provided is far from an indulgence; given the Office for National Statistics has published recent data suggesting only 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of paid employment (ONS 2020), this is a neccessity and something we should be lobbying for now.

And as I said, how great would this be for all staff⏤to have a place where they can tend to their well-being. How much would workplace stress be reduced? I think we would have happier and more harmonious workplaces. I think it’s worth a try.

Five Things Everyone Ought to Know About Autism

Despite a burgeoning of trainings and autism awareness initiatives, the truth is that the actual awareness of what autism is and⏤more importantly⏤feels like as a lived experience remains woefully low. The purpose of this blog isn’t to point the finger: I knew next-to-nothing about autism until I found out I was autistic, so I don’t expect other people to be any better. The problem? Autism training and research is so infrequently autistic-led, which means that all that is communicated about autism is what it looks like from the outside⏤and this is misleading and results in a bad type of knowing-about-autism. Below I have listed five things I think everyone ought to know about autism, in the hopes that this will be a small step in redressing what I see as a kind of programme of mis-information that currently presents itself as autism-awareness. So. Here we go.

  1. Autistic people generally don’t like person-first language; this means saying ‘person with autism’ instead of ‘autistic person’ (for me, autistic and autist are fine too). Using person-first language is generally held⏤by the neurotypical population⏤to be better because it sees the person as separate, and not defined, by the condition. Autistics see autism as part of who they are; it is fundamental⏤in most cases⏤to our identity, as it informs how we perceive, feel and are in the world. Consequently, most of us prefer identity-first language: we are autistic people.
  2. Autistic people have empathy. In fact, we sometimes have much higher levels of empathy than the average person⏤and this includes empathy with animals, which is why many of us are vegan. However, autistic empathy may look different to neurotypical empathy: we’re not touchy-feely people and may not make the ‘right noises’ to communicate the depth of what we feel. Know this, though: the double-empathy problem is a research finding which suggests that neurotypical people have as hard a time reading the emotions of autistics as autistics do them. Autistic lack of empathy is the biggest autism myth there is. It is not true. Let’s move on.
  3. Autism is not a spectrum. That is, it is not a linear spectrum where a person has more or less autism according to a sliding scale. Rather, autism is more like a ‘bag of things’ or attributes; all autistics are different and have different combinations of autistic attributes in different ways and to different extents. For example, although someone’s autism might be very obvious⏤they may tic or be non-verbal⏤they may have less trouble with sensory stimulation and getting overwhelmed than someone who looks less autistic to the untrained eye. This is problematic because obviously autistic people can be underestimated⏤and people who pass for normal don’t get the support and adjustments they need to be OK. Autistic people don’t like functioning labels (‘high’ and ‘low’) but prefer instead to talk about support needs⏤which are much more variable and take account of the fact that autism has a spiky profile, and this is key: if you don’t know what an autistic person needs in terms of support, ask; do not assume that if an autist can do one thing they can therefore do another. Never, ever, say, ‘you don’t look autistic’; although we know it’s well-meant it really invalidates the ways in which we struggle to get through the day.
  4. Any behavioural therapy for which the aim is to make an autistic person look more normal is harmful; specifically (you may come across this so please take note) ABA therapy is regarded by many autistic people as abuse. Many autistics have chronic PTSD for reasons. Support us as we are and let us be⏤different but equal.
  5. When an autistic person says they can’t do or stand something, please believe them. We are hyper-sensitive in multiple ways and we are not just making a fuss. We don’t need to be helped to tolerate things we find intolerable; making accommodations is finding another way⏤this is how you address accessibility. Questioning whether an autistic person really can’t do something is not empowering them⏤it is gaslighting.

I am really grateful that you have taken the time to read this post. This is how we raise awareness, one autistic blog at a time. Finally, I just want to add that a lot of what passes for ‘autism research’ is nonsense (although I’m not going to name names here) so stay alert people⏤and spread the word!

Everything I Know About Autism I Learned from Twitter

Autistic people, by and large, don’t like #AutismAwarenessWeek. I learned this from Twitter. I found out I was autistic about 18 months ago⏤big surprise⏤after a chance encounter with an autistic person. The main reason I went so long without knowing I was autistic is because autism awareness initiatives and training are in the main very bad: they are rarely led by autistic people and therefore end up presenting an ‘outside’ picture of what autism is which is confused and deeply othering. However, by connecting with other autistic people on Twitter I learned a lot. Below I have summarised some of my key takeaways. If you want to learn more about autism get yourself a Twitter account and follow advocates like @commaficionado and @lilririah.

  • Most autistics prefer identity-first language to person-first language. This means saying ‘autistic person’ as opposed to ‘person with autism’. Most autists despise the phrase ‘on the spectrum’.
  • Autism is a disability, not a special ability. Using the social model of disability, being autistic in a society set up for neurotypical people makes life difficult. It is fine to use the word disability. Please do not say ‘differently abled’⏤this is diminishing and underplays what disabled people have to contend with.
  • The puzzle-piece symbol is widely seen as being offensive; similarly, so is ‘lighting it up blue’⏤the rainbow infinity symbol is preferred.
  • If non-autistic people wish to advocate for autistic people they should do so using the allyship model: by lifting up the voices of autistic people and calling out ableism when they encounter it⏤and never talking over (or down) the experiences of autistic people.
  • Autistic children become autistic adults. There are probably as many autistic girls/women as boys/men, but they are less likely to be identified.
  • Autism is not an illness and thus has no ‘cure’; it is a developmental difference.
  • ABA therapy is seen as abusive by autistic people, akin to ‘treating’ someone for being gay.
  • About 50% of autistic people are LGBTQ+.
  • Autism is not a linear spectrum⏤one person is not more or less autistic than another, but rather have different support needs. All autistics are individuals and all have a unique blend of autistic traits.
  • Autism is not a superpower and Rainman is not a good representation: a very small percentage of autistic people have what is called savant syndrome (a set of special intellectual abilities) but most don’t⏤although many have special interests and an ability to focus, and thus learn well. Many academics are autistic, but autism doesn’t mean being good at maths…
  • Autistic people generally have good, and often heightened, empathy with others⏤including empathy with animals. However, autism does affect a person’s ability to read social cues, which has led to the myth that autists don’t connect with others or have a theory of mind.
  • Autism is not a mental illness, although many autistic people are mentally ill too.
  • Autism is not an intellectual disability, although many autistic people have an intellectual disability too.
  • Autistic people are likely to be incredibly sensitive to sensory input: strong lights, strong smells and loud noises can make us feel overwhelmed. Please listen if an autistic person tells you that the light is hurting them.
  • Black autistics often report feeling marginalised by the autistic community, which represents itself as overwhelmingly white. Black autistics are also disproportionately excluded from school⏤and arrested⏤due to the way racism means their autism is read. This is a serious issue and something the autistic community needs to tackle.
  • Depending on what study you read, autistic people are between 3 and 9 times more likely to attempt suicide than a member of the neurotypical population; autistic people have higher rates of depression and PTSD because it is hard being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world.
  • Only 22% of autistic adults are in paid employment (ONS, 2020). One of the main reasons is that ‘reasonable adjustments’ are not provided⏤a reasonable adjustment might be something like working from home or having an office which is free from noise.
  • Autistic people often like to move or fiddle with things to relieve stress; this is normal and usually harmless⏤it is called stimming.
  • Many autistic people are non-speaking or semi-speaking; this is not an indication of their agency or capacity.
  • Phone calls and social situations are often/usually difficult and draining.
  • Autistics are roughly 1% of the population, so everyone probably knows someone who is autistic.

I could go on, but I won’t. Please check out autistic Twitter⏤follow autistic people on Twitter⏤and help make #AutismAwarenessWeek a genuinely useful thing this year.

On Being a Working Class Professional

“Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?”

“Why is everyone from yours a Tory minister?”

Zadie Smith NW

This piece could be seen as a follow-on from my blog on imposter syndrome, where I suggested that the reason some people feel inauthentic in professional roles may be more structural than personal. Today I want to think about what it means to be working class within an elite institution⏤in this case I am going to consider academia, because that is my world and my experience, but what I have got to say applies to working class professionals in other contexts; what i have got to say is ubiquitous to any institution or profession which might be described as elite. So, if you are a working class medic or lawyer or part of any profession which confers status, this is for you.

Like Zadie Smith, I’m from Willesden Green⏤and this is my high school picture. I am not in it, I have never enjoyed being photographed. Not many kids from my school went to university. There were a few exceptions: the architect David Adjaye was in the year below me, but he’s a superstar alum and not the norm. Mainly we do ordinary things.

So, what does it mean to be a working class professional in an elite space? Do such professionals shed their working class identity when they put on a suit? I would say, no. Working class identities persist⏤and they matter.

In her book Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage: Ghosts of Childhood Habitus (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019) sociologist Carole Binns explores the topic by gathering narratives of the lived experiences of working class academics. Using Bordieu’s work as a lens, Binns finds a significant group who, ‘found the process of social mobility to be painful’ and ‘considered themselves to be working-class despite their educational and professional achievements’; such academics experienced significant problems with their identities, reporting either a split or ‘cleft habitus’ (using Bordieu’s terminology, a sense of having two distinct sets of the behaviours and abilities that make up our cultural capital), or as being haunted by ‘ghosts of habitus’⏤remnants of working class experience and identities which prevent a cohesive sense of an academic professional identity forming. So, being working class is a disruptive psychological experience for the professional moving into elite institutions and roles: basically, we’re uncomfortable⏤not fully one thing or another. Because⏤and this is an important point⏤working class academics are often if not usually not fully comfortable growing up in their home communities, either, this sense of dislocation begins early.

“When being bullied Keisha Blake found it useful to remember that if you read the relevant literature or watched the pertinent movies you soon found that being bullied was practically a sign of a superior personality, and the greater the intensity of the bullying the more likely it was to be avenged at the other end of life, when qualities of the kind Keisha Black possessed– cleverness, will-to-power– became ‘their own reward,’ and that this remained true even if the people in the literature and movies looked nothing like you, came from a different socio-economic and historical universe, and– had they ever met you– would very likely have enslaved you, or at best, bullied you to precisely the same extent as Lorna Mackenzie who had a problem with the way you acted like you were better than everyone else”.”
― Zadie Smith, NW

Giving a US perspective, tenured professor Allison L. Hurst blogs,

"[Growing up poor marks a person] Although as the so-called smart kid in my neighborhood, I always felt a little different, my sense of alienation from school did not really begin until I went to college.  I was caught between two worlds, a stranger in paradise, and all those other clichés that are nevertheless quite accurate.  It was not until I found a group of people with similar experiences, the working-class academics, that I finally felt at home."
⏤ (Working Class Perspectives, 22 July 2019)

So, while the university may be the longed-for paradise where ‘being clever’ is allowed⏤ is validated⏤it is simultaneously alienating for someone who is working class, and too often this is an experience of not-belonging: not looking and speaking the right way, and having the wrong preferences. Hurst suggest the answer might lie in finding community with other working class people in the same space.

The alternative is to experience a type of cultural deracination resulting in the individual severing all ties with the cultural milieu in which they grew up, in order to fit in: fitting in is a global experience for working class individuals in elite spaces and intersects with all aspects of cultural being⏤from one’s choice of food, words, home decor to how we interact socially. This is something which is deeply alienating.

Anyway, I figure that there is strength in numbers so we should make ourselves visible. I made myself a badge. I’ve given out a few this week. If you want one, message me.

Why is it important to consider how working class people be in relation to the dominant culture of the elite institution? Because it has a tangible effect on how working class people perform: the thing I hear most from academics is the effect being working class has on their confidence to research, to speak and to publish their work⏤that they don’t sound clever.

Elite institutions have problem with discussing class: in universities euphemisms for the working class are used⏤’non-traditional student’,’first-generation student’, ‘widening participation agenda’⏤as if skirting around something embarrassing. This is not helpful and it is not necessary. In my experience, working class students and academics are comfortable to be identified as such; this kind of not-naming carries implications of shame. This is not helpful.

What is the upshot of all this? Well, I think it is time that class was made an explicit part of the diversity/inclusivity agenda. Elite institutions need to be comfortable enough to open a conversation about class. Some limited progress has been made around having discussions about structural exclusion conducted along racial lines, and now it is time to put class into the mix: in the UK class and race are deeply intersectional anyway⏤certainly, that is my experience of being urban working class. We need to become class-conscious again. It is time to have that conversation.