“Never believe anything you read about autism” this is how this brilliant little volume begins, and this sentence attracted me straight away. I am tired of reading books and articles along the lines of “All autistic people are this.””You can’t be autistic because you can do that.” “If you have a diagnosis, you will react to this in such-and-such a way.”, because more often than not, they don’t describe me. The first chapter may be off-putting to those who seek definitive answers about autism – but the fact is, there are no definitive answers. No one theory fits all autistic people. I am pleased that Dr Beardon debunks the myth of “mild” and “severe” autism. Of the autistic people I know, if would be hard to classify them into these terms. To an observer now, one might say I have “mild” autism, but if you saw how I was as a child, that would be debatable. Very importantly, it is the effect of the environment on an autistic person that determines the outcome. I am living proof of this. As a child I exhibited what I now know to be classic autistic behaviour (stimming, selective mutism, obsessions, rituals, choosing to play alone) for which I was bullied and ostracised at school, but because I had a positive upbringing and was always encouraged at home, and have also been blessed with intelligence and a great deal of good luck, I am now a flourishing, successful and mentally stable adult.
The chapter on empathy is particularly enlightening: I have been told so many times that, being diagnosed Aspergers, I must lack empathy, that I’d almost come to believe it. No, we just have a different empathic style. I also believed myself to lack social skills, but now I realise that all I lack is the intuitive ability to pick up unwritten neurotypical social skills. This makes SO much more sense to me, as I have worked SO hard to pick up the social skills to enable me to function in a neurotypical world as an adult, and on the whole I succeed. It is just all about different viewpoints, like judging a cat on how well they can bark like a dog.
Dr Beardon is at pains to point out that the medical model of autism identifies it as a deficit – something to be fixed, cured or changed for the better, and that this needs to change. I never believed there was anything “wrong” with me, either as a child or now. At one time, left-handedness was seen as “wrong.”, when all that was needed was for society to make some adjustments like designing tools for left-handers.
Some chapters apply to me less than others, for instance the one on sensory profiles, (apart from a low tolerance to ongoing loud noises, I don’t struggle greatly with sensory issues) and the one on anxiety. I am pleased that Dr Beardon states “being autistic does not mean that one will automatically be anxious”. The example he gives, of a woman being anxious because her friend turned up late for a lunch date and with another unannounced friend in tow, would not apply to me now. It may have done when I was younger. Now I would think “only a few minutes late, it doesn’t matter” and “how nice there’s a 3rd person, more chance of interesting conversation and less spotlight on me”. The other example he gives, of a man being pedantic with words to his boss, equally doesn’t really apply to me now. I’ve been in similar situations a few times, and got that “shut up you annoying smartarse” look enough times that I wouldn’t bother now, or if I did it would be very tactfully.
The chapter on diagnosis and identity should be required reading for ALL who are seeking or have recently obtained a diagnosis. I love that he refers to the process as “identification”, as the word “diagnosis” implies that we are ill or at least lesser beings. If anyone is in doubt as to whether to pursue a formal diagnosis, I hope this chapter will convince you. Yes, autism is a “label” but so much better than the other “labels” we would probably get if we weren’t diagnosed. Rude, arrogant, aloof, insensitive, unfeeling – I have been called all of these at times, I KNOW they are not the truth and before my diagnosis I was always puzzled as to their use, because I could never understand why I was being labelled this way, when I was trying so hard NOT to be any of these.
The final part of the book is a self-help manual for autistic people in particular situations: higher education, employment, relationships and parenthood. If this is you, Dr Beardon’s guidance will be incredibly useful. These chapters should also be required reading for neurotypicals in these institutions, to help understand us.
If you only read one chapter however, I would recommend the final one, “Celebrating autism.” We sometimes get so bogged down in reading all the negatives about the condition, that it is important to remind ourselves of the positives. I can tick pretty much all of the boxes in the positive characteristics Dr Beardon describes. Yay! I will keep this chapter close at hand for whenever I need a pick-me-up!
I’d also like to add that this book is TOTALLY non-sexist, and everything in it could be applied to both sexes. Other than the autism books I’ve read that are specifically aimed at women, every other book I’ve read is either male-centred, or has broad generalisations like “autistic men are this, and autistic women are that.” I applaud Dr Beardon for this.
Thank you, Dr Beardon, for writing the autism manual that I wish I’d read three years ago when I was just beginning to question whether or not I was on the spectrum. It has helped me and will help so many others.