Are neurotypical paradigms damaging people on the autistic spectrum?
I am a purveyor of stories. I know their power. When I got engaged and my mother warned me, “Just don’t make up too many stories,” she knows their power in my life too. On my Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Stories training day, I tell a story that I heard as a very young child and track its influence on my life now.
We talk about young children as being impressionable. Stories seem like little things, but those first ideas, those first impressions left in a growing mind, shape it from its foundations up. At an age where children are so very impressionable, we read them bedtime stories that tell them that women are passive: the princess waits for rescue, and that men are active: the prince rescues. One story like this would be okay, especially if there was another (like the “Paperbag Princess” by Robert Munsch, or “Princess Smartypants” by Babette Cole) to even things out, but generally there isn’t. Our children are exposed to, not just one story, but many that teach them that they fit into a box: women-passive, men-active, this does neither gender any favours. We all need to be rescued sometimes and we all need to know we have the power to rescue ourselves (and occasionally others).
Autistic people grow up in a world where nearly all the narratives are neurotypical. These narratives teach us what is normal and right, and what is not, and when we cannot fit ourselves into these moulds, we feel that we are in the wrong. We injure ourselves in the trying, like the infamous square peg in a round hole. Two current notable exceptions for children today are the book “The Cloud Spotter” by Tom Mclaughlin (that I discovered thanks to Booktrust’s Special School Library Pack) and the TV show, “Pablo”.
When you don’t fit in, it is common for you to kick back against the hurt of trying to shave your own edges off. Some people kick out at the world, others hurt themselves. Incidents of self-harm and violent behaviour are more common in people with autism than they are in people with neurotypicism. When dealing with behaviour, we tend to think only of the immediate situation: what happened just before this behaviour? What should the consequence, the after, be for this behaviour? These things are important of course but we are all more than the moment we are in; our history and the stories we are told shape us. This is something I touch upon in my course Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour.
So what are these paradigms? They are not necessarily big stories, they are the little ones: that eye contact is polite, that parties are fun. They are contained within other stories: that we must feel emotions constantly, that to be solitary is a sign of something wrong. They are habituated into our daily rituals: shoes must stay on our feet and coats should be worn in the rain.
As with the gender bias paradigms of the past, they are incredibly hard to spot from within. As a parent, I vet the stories I read my son so that he knows not all women are wet blankets waiting around for someone else to have ideas and that men are allowed to have emotions and interests outside of fighting. Yet as a child, I never questioned why the princess in the tower simply sat and waited, I never questioned why I must sit with my legs crossed always whilst the boy next to me can sit with his knees apart.
Escaping the stories that hold us takes a lot of time, and often outside perspectives are required to help us better see the bars of our own cages. I encourage you to look for narratives told from different perspectives. Look at the start of any minority movement and you will see the power of personal stories shared. I am trying to do my bit by sharing tiny shards of my life on the spectrum in a photo album on Facebook. It can be worth exploring if you want to increase your awareness of neurodivergence.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.