Autism and the social change group

I spent the afternoon in a workshop on autism and social change groups. The trainers were all on the autistic spectrum (diagnosed or undiagnosed), as were several other participants. The rest was a motley crew of activists and activist facilitators like myself – or NT’s as I now know that we’re known (neuro-typicals). As well as the first hand experience we were able to tap, one benefit of trainers who were on the spectrum was seeing the significant differences in the way their autism presented itself to the group – a clear message that autism defies stereotypes or assumptions.

The big down side of the workshop was simply that it was too short. We were given a good theoretical introduction to autism, helpfully peppered with anecdotes and examples. We had a chance to work through a couple of scenarios and discuss group responses to difference. We touched on solutions to including those on the autism spectrum without alienating others in the group. What was missing was an opportunity to practice and embed the learning through experience.

One obvious piece of learning from the first half of the session was that the many implicit social rules that most of us take for granted are a source of significant stress for those on the autistic spectrum, many of whom simply don’t have an innate understanding of the cues and etiquette of social situations. Translate this to social change groups: What assumptions do we make? What processes, in jokes, roles and responsibilities are implicit? Time to make these things explicit if we’re serious about accessibility to those on the autistic spectrum. And if we make ‘rules’ explicit there’s a need to stick to them. Rules that are changed or broken lead to confusion. But being explicit about the rules doesn’t need to be difficult or lead to conflict. It was observed that it is possible (and necessary) to be explicit and polite.

The workshop raised other issues which sadly we didn’t have time to explore and resolve. Many of them, to me, are issues to do with diversity and not autism in particular

Once again I saw hints of the view common in activist/activist facilitation circles that hand signals are a panacea, a way of ensuring that we could guarantee equality of participation. We’ve critiqued hand signals before. Whilst, on balance, I advocate their use, without the co-operative values that underpin them, and without a genuine commitment to diversity, they don’t do all that we claim they do. I worry that it’s too simple to promote them as a solution to including autistic group members and helping avoid the alienation that “different” behaviour can cause (both in the person of difference, and in those struggling to deal with that difference). Yes, hand signals might provide a structure that reassures the autistic. But they’re a rule that we often need to break. It’s far too simple to say “we’ll take your contributions in the order you stick up your hands” or “If you put up your hand you will be heard”. What if the first ten hands that go up are all male? Do we really wait that long to break the rule and include a female perspective? What if I put my hand up for the 5th time? Do you really guarantee I’ll be heard when there are other people putting up their hands for the 1st time?

There was also a slight tendency to ‘dump’ the bridging of the gap between NTs and autistics on the facilitator rather than leaving the whole group better equipped, more tolerant and more understanding of diversity.

Another interesting conversation was about building group cohesion. This was the challenge set to the group: how to build and maintain group cohesion in a group containing someone on the autistic spectrum? Activist groups use socialising (fraught with implicit rules) as their main mechanism for establishing and maintaining group cohesion. But what if that doesn’t work for you? The alternative suggested in the group conversation was to build cohesion as part of the ‘work’ of the group. Another topic we didn’t have time to explore fully.

An interesting afternoon – more questions raised than answered, but that’s how it should be.

The trainers had elicited some thoughts from folk on the autistic spectrum who were involved in social change groups. Here’s one of the responses:

I was in various local groups in environmental issues… for many years I kept “trying harder”, thinking I would eventually fit in and/or be taken seriously. I wrote studies and tried to work with everyone. I wasn’t trying to please anyone in particular; just had my eye on the overall goals that seemed rational to me – justice, safety, etc. I quit when I found out about autism and realized I was different on a much more fundamental level that I had previously thought…

Other pre-workshop reading was also valuable, and I include it here. Happy reading.


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