BOM & Autism

BOM has become more and more aware of autism and over the last 18 months we have been exploring various elements of the autistic experience at BOM. We became aware of how many barriers BOM’s old venue had and we wanted to change this to make it more inclusive so we fundraised for an extensive refurbishment. The design of the refurbishment was developed in consultation with seven autistic adults. The consultation process has been very successful and as a result we continue to develop these relationships through our projects and exhibitions.

  • Propeller, our autism at work initiative,
  • Alternative education models for autistic children
  • Tribes, Treasure Hunts and Truth Seekers, a creative project looking at our relationship with data in collaboration with The Open Data Institute and University of Southampton.

If you are interested in any of our autistic initiatives, please get in touch with chloe@bom.org.uk

What is autism?

The National Autistic Society defines autism as:

“… a lifelong neurological condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.”

Media representations of autism have often dramatised and simplified the traits of autistic people, for example Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Rain Man and Jim Parsons portrayal of Sheldon in the TV series, The Big Bang Theory. In reality, autistic people are individuals with a wide range of physical and cognitive skills. Some autistic people have genius level IQs, others are severely learning impaired. Some autistic people are athletes, others have severe dyspraxia or physical impairments. Some autistic people love words and enjoy writing and speaking, others are completely non-verbal. Some autistic people strive to fit-in socially and to come across as “normal,” while others have no regard for social niceties and may appear particularly unique or eccentric.

But there are some shared traits that make autistic people seem very different from non autistic people.

One of BOM’s autistic consultants shared this analogy as a way to explain some of the barriers they encounter daily.

“Imagine that you have moved to a new country. The language and culture is totally different to the one you are used to. How easy will it be to get work and advance your career when you don’t clearly understand what your colleagues are saying?”

What applies to people working in foreign countries can also apply to autistic people. Autistic people communicate differently to neurotypical people and although many autistic people learn to get by in society and in the workplace, there will always be basic differences in how autistic people communicate and process the world around them.

For neurotypical people the use of speech, language and regular social contact can be essential to mental well-being. Allistic people can place a lot of importance on social interaction and instinctively use complex and subtle body language and facial expressions to communicate emotion and social standing. Autistic people may not have this instinctive ability and if they want to understand body language and facial expressions, they have to make a conscious effort to do so.

Some autistic people use speech and language in an unusual, sometimes very creative way, or they may not use spoken language at all. They also typically do not need the same level of human interaction as others in order to be mentally well. Indeed, for many autistic people too much social interaction is exhausting and a source of mental ill-health.

Until very recently debate and discussion around autism and autistic experience have been led by neurotypical people, either the medical profession or the parents of autistic children. In the late eighties Dr Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University in the US, was among the first autistic people to write and lecture about her experience which was a key moment in changing perceptions of autistic people through her academic success. This paved the way for other autistic people to share their experience and for researchers and diagnosticians to re-evaluate their understanding of autism and autistic experience.

Social media has been a tremendous resource for autistic people to express their experience and to form friendships and support networks with others. In response to the twitter hashtag #autismis people wrote the following:

“Autism is how I think. How I process. How I am. My identity. My neurodivergence. Intense interests. Social overwhelm. Anxiety. Pure joy. Sweet, sweet solitude. Me. “Dean Beadle.

“Autism is the overwhelming, ecstatic pleasure of sharing and expounding on what you love most with other people.” Sara Luterman

“Autism is being able to accomplish the extraordinary but not always being able to accomplish the ordinary.”The Silent Wave

“Autism is not being able to comprehend to what the person in front of you is saying because all you can hear is the background noises.” Helen Ellis

“Autism is sometimes running out of the energy it takes to pass as normal.” Jax Blunt

What is the difference between neurodiversity and neurodivergence?

The term was coined by autistic sociologist, Judy Singer and has subsequently been taken up by autistic activists. The term neurodiversity expresses the infinite variation in cognitive functioning within our species including non-autistic people. Neurodivergence however, specifically includes conditions such as ADD, Dyspraxia, Bipolar and Dyslexia as well as Autism.

The term neurodivergent challenges us to consider how different types of cognitive functioning are equally valid.

Diversity is reflected across the human race, in our language, size, gender identity, and physical and intellectual abilities. Seeing neurodivergent people as “different” can lead to social & political inequality, resulting in these groups being marginalised. However, where acceptance and inclusion is actively sought, our natural human diversity can be a source of great potential.

If you are interested in any of our autistic initiatives, please get in touch with chloe@bom.org.uk