My book chapter is out!

I am delighted to announce that the chapter I wrote for Senses of Focusing Vol. II (Eurasia Publications) 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.

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!

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. 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.

Journalling for Anxiety

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

Susan Sontag

I am new to journalling. I started this past March just before the lockdown. I see the irony of being new⏤given I teach groups and facilitate clients to write reflectively and constantly extol the benefits of expressive writing⏤but there it is. The research evidence shows that writing a journal has multiple benefits for mental health: expressing our thoughts reduces stress, gives you a place to share things you might otherwise keep inside, helps to develop a sense of having a voice (what we call a sense of agency), and helps with the processing of challenging experiences.

The timing was auspicious, although not designed; I was struggling to get going with my academic writing and read someone somewhere say that they always began the writing day with a warm-up exercise in their journal⏤so that’s how it began. And then the virus happened. And I was ANXIOUS.

I found that one way to reduce my anxiety was to write down⏤to chronicle⏤all of the developments related to the virus that I’d come across in the day: numbers of infections, numbers of deaths, lockdown measures (the closing of pubs was the first big one), major stories in the press. Nothing personal, nothing about what I was feeling. Just the facts. I think this helped because I wasn’t simply suffering the pandemic, but rather was telling its story: I got distance on the events by describing them and also assumed a degree of self-agency in taking on the role of narrator. Jennifer Moon (Learning Journals, 2006) identifies reflective writing as vehicle for self-empowerment; telling our story is a place of power.

This approach served its purpose for a month or so; then my journal moved into a new phase⏤what I think of as my Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals phase⏤where I started to observe and report on the activities of the neighbours. (I realise as I write this that it sounds a little creepy, but bear with me.) The bloke two doors up is building an ambitious shed⏤we call it the shedifice⏤from scratch, which means its a long process with lots of stages. The neighbours are bored at home; the wood arrives and it draws the men first, who watch the timber unloaded. The walls start to rise and more men come, and the women join them: shedifice becomes the whole focus of the street; at nights there are parties in the roofless shed. Every day I check progress and note it down. You get the idea. What did this stage of the journal do for my anxiety? Well, it took me outside of the worry in my head and trained my focus on the here-and-now of the outside world; it took me away from anxieties about a projected future. Jon Kabat Zinn posits mindfulness as the antidote to anxiety; in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) he writes ‘one practical way to do this is to look at other people’. In therapy we commonly use grounding exercises for attacks of anxiety: turning your attention to the things you can see, hear and feel in the external environment⏤and away from anxious thoughts in the mind. You can google grounding exercises and find audio walk-throughs that are helpful.

Anyway, then there was a third stage of journalling. I started re-reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992) which is an 11-week programme for unlocking your creativity⏤which I recommend if you haven’t read it. The keystone of the programme is ‘the morning pages’⏤three sides of stream-of-consciousness writing done as soon as possible after you wake up. This type of writing is rarely a pleasure, but rather more of a discipline which forces you to get what’s inside of your head outside. Through this raw type of writing you can see a self emerge which you may or may not have been aware of: a messy whole person written with openness and a sense of acceptance. I always think of the Carl Rogers’ quote: it is a curious paradox that when I accept myself as I am, then I can start to change. I started to get to know myself without the anxious bits edited out.

Now I am in a fourth (and final?) stage where I do the morning pages and jot down notes and observations at other times of the day. My journal has become more than an activity⏤it has become somewhere to go, a space, a place to hangout when my emotions need some care. It can be a distraction or an abstraction (I am still keeping tabs on the shed), it is often a dumping-ground⏤but it is increasingly becoming a place I can be myself and find myself and, I think, create myself⏤oftentimes in unexpected ways. While journalling isn’t a universal panacea for anxiety, I have found that it certainly can calm me when I find my thinking leading me into dark waters.

Give it a go.