In my last blog I talked about an article put out in the Daily Mail linking autism to radicalisation. ( https://askpergers.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/are-autistic-people-at-a-greater-risk-of-being-radicalised-my-response/ )I explained why the ideas put forward in this article are wrong, and why I think the idea behind the article itself is dangerous. I am far from the only autistic person to take issue with the article; in fact I have yet to come across an autistic person who does think positively about it. One of the issues that came up the most when I was talking to other autistic people on twitter about this article, is the lack of autistic-led research around autism.
More often than not if someone is planning a research project around autism, wants to decide which projects will get the most funding, or wants to talk to the press about autism research, that person is not autistic. Often autistic people are not even consulted in these matters. If you look at the autism and radicalstion article the team behind that admitted on twitter that they had not worked with autistic people on the idea before they published it in the press. The article came out, and met with a strong reaction from the autistic community that you imagine would have been wholley predictable had the authors just talked to a few autistic people before-hand. In fact if they had spoken to autistic people they might have decided that the research they were planning to do would not be the most helpful – or at least focusing it on terrorism would not be. Perhaps it would have ended up being a wider piece of research looking at how autistic people can often fall victim to things like so called `mate crime` where they trust someone to the point of thinking they are still friends even after that person has hurt them, or tried to push them in to doing something they know to be wrong. This is something that can impact on a growing number of autistic people, and knowing more about it, and working with the police to help them understand, might genuinely help some autistic people. But as it was we got a poorly researched article that did little more than drum up fear around an issue autistic people had not even asked anyone to look in to. I am not trying to say that non-autistic people can`t do good work around autism – they can. But if you really want to know what you`re talking about, and be taken seriously then at some point you have to talk to the real experts – autistic people.
I am not alone in thinking that if professionals and researchers would take more time to listen to what autistic people are saying, and work with us instead of trying to do what they think is best, it would be better for all involved. We see a lot of studies coming out saying things like “Making eye contact can be painful for autistic people”, to which most autistic people reply “Well yes. We have been saying this for years.”
There is a sense that autistic people can say something for years, and it not be taken seriously until a non-autistic professional says it too. As if we can’t really be trusted to know or understand how our own minds work. And at the same time if a piece of research comes out that we don’t agree with we are meant to just take it at face-value, and accept things about ourselves that we know not to be true. While research by non-autsitic people does play a part in helping us all to understand autism – and I would not want to downplay that, or make it sound as if only autistic people should be working on understanding more about autism – I do think autistic people are well within our rights to reject some findings, or directions of research. We can look back to papers published by highly respected researchers in the 1940s and 1950s that blamed `cold and unfeeling Mothers` for causing their children’s autism, and see that at times it would be silly to accept something just because it’s written in a book by a so-called `expert.`
When things like this happen it often takes professionals years to admit they got it wrong, and all this does is deepen the divide between autistic people and the non-autistic professionals, leading to a situation where time and money is being directed at arguing a case that autistic people already know is silly, just to avoid having to back down. For a more recent example of this look at how the professional world has reacted to the idea of females being autistic. For years they said females could not be, but now – even after countless women and girls have been diagnosed – some (not all) professionals are still clinging to the idea that these females must somehow be super-manly on the inside, or else how could they be autistic? Instead of just admitting they got it wrong, and trying to look at why that might be, they still cling to the idea that autism is a male thing, even when the autistic person is female. Understandably this approach does not earn those professionals a lot of respect in the autistic community
Autism is a way of thinking, a way of feeling and a way of seeing the world, and the truth is autistic people are the real experts. I am not trying to say that non-autistic people don’t have a part to play in understanding autism, and thinking of ways to help autistic people with some of the things that we do find more challenging, but I am saying this needs to be done hand-in-hand with autistic people.
Perhaps if all research around autism were to be led by autistic people – or at least take the time to talk to us and find out what we want, and how we feel about things – there would be less conflict between the autism community and professionals. And autistic people might start to feel that our voices are being listened to. Much more could be achieved if autistic people and professionals were able to work with each other instead of clashing. But for that to happen autistic people need to be given a greater role in leading research, and studies around autism.
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