Autism is an oddly medicalised lens which has its advantages and disadvantages.
Unravelling a long life through a new lens of autism takes even more time and a lot of adjusting. Since receiving my own diagnosis of Asperger’s and looking back on my life, many things make sense. Autism is an oddly medicalised lens and it has advantages and disadvantages.
To help capture my new way of looking at my rather colourful life and the world, I'm writing a memoir. I’ve expanded my knowledge with Postgraduate Certificates in both Autism and Coaching and Mentoring while working closely with autistic people in coaching and mentoring, support settings and in Professional Dialogue groups. The latter was born out of an urge to bring together autistic people, practitioners, educators, academics and family members, when I saw how disparate the autism community is.
I’ve always been drawn towards communities, communication and how everything works together; from the ways we think and live, right up to the solar system and the search for meaning. I spent over 20 years living as a Sufi monk to try to get to the bottom of things.
I discovered ‘Bohm Dialogue’ on my Contemporary Fine Art degree in 2008 and was thrilled to find out that David Bohm, the originator of this tool for group communication and organisational development, was a leading quantum scientist as well. I introduced the method into creative education for self-discovery workshops and in 2017 joined the Academy of Professional Dialogue at their inaugural meeting in London, starting Autism Dialogue at the same time in Sheffield. The international Dialogue community has helped me immensely with a framework for taking my own discovery and specialist work forwards.
At the Academy’s first international conference at Roffey Park, I facilitated a session and have just published an essay about my work in their first book, ‘The World Needs Dialogue! One: Gathering the Field’. I am pleased to be contributing to the development of accreditation and standards and they are now creating a facilitator training course and a Masters’ degree.
In 2018 at the first Autism Dialogue conference, we had a wide variety of guests. A Lead Commissioner sat and talked for the first time ever with a group of autistic adults. Several speakers gave their time, including Carol Povey (Director of the Autism Centre, National Autistic Society) and Jane Ball (co-founder of Academy of Professional Dialogue, Dialogue Associates and Prison Dialogue). A team of us worked as volunteers to make it all happen and we’re doing it again this year.
One of my aims with Autism Dialogue is, by giving equal voice to all, to influence those in power to change for the better.
Doing this through dialogue, with minimum or no agenda, is a balancing skill. ‘No agenda’ is a principle of good dialogue. To facilitate this, I believe that one needs conviction in the universe being inherently positive, and there needs to be a certain allowing for the evolutionary development of a truly Professional Dialogical organisation. Other principles include suspending one's assumptions at the same time as speaking authentically as yourself. Enquiry together is as important as presence in the room. Dialogue is a radical process and some can't hack the thought of it. But once they experience it, they usually enjoy it and find it alters their outlook on life for the better.
Bringing all parties together is our systemic approach and we've done that openly, 'out in the community' for two years. Society’s fragmentation and crisis in communication can be seen and felt by autistic pattern-minds and system-thinkers, no less in the professional and academic autism communities themselves. Of course, it is time for urgent change and to listen carefully to what autistic people want and must say. This is what the work is all about.
Many autistic people are victims of a culture of silencing and othering from non-autistic people who are quicker to try and grab power, even though they already have it. A common remark autistic people receive is “but you don’t look autistic.” The misconceptions are largely because of stereotypes in media and common association with learning disabilities, which are entirely separate. There’s a lot of good awareness raising about autism and autistic people, but there’s still a long way to go before whole-system and culture change. Autism has no bio-marker, which makes it even more tricky for anyone to pin down, yet meanwhile most research funding is directed towards the ‘fix-it’ approach. The neurodiversity movement highlights the strengths of many, while some say it further marginalises those with less of a voice and there’s a growing campaign to remove autism from medical manuals. The societal and cultural ramifications are extremely complex and daunting, but no less than medical negligence and the controversial eugenics-inspired practices, often forcefully applied to promote a type of idealised normalcy, as well as alarming suicide rates in the autistic population.
Whole culture change is required. Being hyper-sensitive (I was always accused of carrying the world on my shoulders but never knew what that meant!), I can feel and sense autism as the universal problem that it is, even perhaps on a quantum level, sometimes thinking I can feel the universe groaning with pain. I think that’s why I don't usually get upset when I’m challenged for my work and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, which is useful as a Dialogue facilitator, I suppose. I consider myself to be in a very fortunate and responsible position.
Overall, we need to show that Dialogue can and should be used in many areas such as healthcare, education and criminal justice, to facilitate a more dialogical and diverse world, where multiple perspectives can be held equally together, safely. By challenging notions of a certain ‘self-ism’, Autism Dialogue is a catalyst for much bigger issues.