Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

So Vodafone has become the latest global blue-chip to cotton on to the business advantage of having autistic employees.

The telecoms firm has been recruiting people with autism to its offices in Germany, hoping to harness their skills with numbers and patterns to the company's advantage.

They are not the first company to do this. German software firm SAP said in May it hoped to recruit hundreds of people with autism in order to capitalise on their "unique talent" for information technology, after an initial small-scale trial boosted productivity. A week later mortgage finance company Freddie Mac launched a second round of paid internships open only to autistic candidates.

Activists cheered. Neurological diversity was on the way, slowly, but as steadily as race and gender, they said.

However. If you look up the media coverage of this trend, if you were to google, for example 'autism' and 'recruitment' you would find a national newspaper refer to SAP's initiative as a plan to recruit "autism sufferers" . The article is illustrated with a photograph of Dustin Hoffman playing - you guessed it - Rainman. (Ta da!)

That article is the perfect summary of where we are in terms of society's perception of autism. Right there, that's it in a nutshell. We are in a Very Strange Place. I don't believe that SAP believes it is hiring "sufferers", but rather highly efficient people who are uniquely gifted with the kind of skills and insight that SAP thinks will make it a lot of money. I don't believe either that the autistic people whom SAP is hiring view themselves as sufferers. (I do however class as sufferers those of us who have to read that particular newspaper in the interest of research.) The story is skewed because of a failure to see past the big scarlet 'A' of Autism and the view that Autism Is A Bad Thing.

Proof of how entrenched this view is: While Vodafone was probably putting the finishing touches to its recruitment plan, buses in Seattle were driving around bearing this ad, showing a little boy's smiling face alongside the legend "Let's wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime." The children's hospital responsible - a children's hospital! - was forced to apologise and withdraw the ad. There then followed much debate about why listing autism alongside cancer might be wrong. Lots of people, including me, were cross that this was even a debate. Lots of other people, including TV doctor Christian Jessen, suggested we were overreacting. A friend of mine thought that parents who protested were doing so because they were too involved in the minutiae of their stressful, autism-centric lives to see that actually the ad was a great exercise in raising awareness.

Raising awareness. This is the way people who are learning to care often now speak about Worthy Causes and Difficult Topics. I use the term too. But it's not enough, any more, to use it without thinking about what you want people to be aware of. Many people think they know what autism is when they are not fully aware of what autism really is. In my view it is not something that should be included in a list of severe illnesses that can result in death. I would prefer we see autism as something to accept, and celebrate in many cases, rather than something that is better obliterated so we can all be normal, whatever that is.

I know this is relatively easy for me to say because my daughter has a high-functioning form of autism that comes with gifts such as artistic skill and theatrical flair. It is harder to think this way if your child is having a very tough life. It is hard to think this way if your child has very low functioning autism and will live all their life with the mental ability of a very young child. I cannot and would not presume to speak for those parents. But as an autistic friend of mine, who has had cancer, put it: "For many of us with autism it's like putting on a bus: "Let's wipe out cancer, diabetes and women" on the basis that women have period pain and mood swings and therefore their quality of life must be terrible and we should spend billions trying to find a way to turn them into the much more efficiently designed and emotionally stable men. We are not broken things to be fixed." This friend, by the way, has run a business for 13 years with turnover of £14 million and, during all that time, an error rate of 82 pence.

So far, so very weird. How do we explain the dichotomy between companies hiring autistic people for profit and the rest of society fearing and condemning them? This piece written by a mother at the end of her tether with her "demon daughter" set off a lot of alarm bells for me when I read it. A child who refuses to go to bed, get dressed, have her hair brushed, or essentially do anything she doesn't want to? Is that saying anything to you? To the people who left comments beneath the article it said that she was naughty and deserved to have all her toys taken away, straight away.

This baffles me. How can it be that while SAP and Vodafone and Freddie Mac are minting money from employees on the autism spectrum, and while award-winning novels and plays and films about autism surround us, we can simultaneously be in this other place too? How is it that there can be the Treehouse School, with its extraordinary care and calm understanding just a short journey from the educational establishment where for years my daughter and I battled to be helped? (I visited Treehouse today, and was moved to tears at one point by the impact of seeing such a professional and sensitive approach to supporting autistic children.) My daughter has been called naughty. We have been told in the past that bullying was something she brought on herself. But the people who used to think that have learned about her autism diagnosis. My daughter has learned how to temper some of her behaviour. I have learned - though it exasperates me to the point of screaming sometimes - that she just cannot go to sleep much before midnight, and needs her hair brushed with a special brush and won't wear clothes that don't feel nice on her skin. We have all learned a true awareness of Grace's autism. To watch her shine in the school production of Grease last week was all the more glorious for the whole class's joyful celebration of unconventionality and friendship.

It feels as though we are all watching a film in which the camera is panning back very slowly from something we cannot yet make out; as though we are guessing and guessing at the pixellated images as they shift and turn slowly into focus. Some of us have figured it out. Others are still screwing up their faces and tilting their head to the side as they try to size up this thing, whatever it is. Others have made up their mind, regardless of what the final image will show.

We have to continue until we figure it out. If we limit our understanding of autism, dismiss it, or give it an out of date label, we may all end up worse off. As Kate Ravilious said so well in her New Scientist article:

"If the special talents in the population have helped humans to get this far, we may need such different modes of thinking to see us through the next few thousand years. If the past teaches us anything, it's that humanity thrives by being adaptable."

Or, as Barry Gibb put it equally well: "Conventionality belongs to yesterday."



Grace Under Pressure: Going the distance as an Asperger's Mum is published by Piatkus. Details here.  It will be published in the United States by New World Library in September. Details here

I will be running the Royal Parks half-marathon in October to raise funds - and  awareness! - for autism. If you liked this article, please click here to sponsor me. 

3 comments:

  1. I struggle to accept that my daughter has autism. I can't see the boundary between her being stubborn, eccentric and bossy and her having this thing they call Asperger's Syndrome. But at least I know that autism is as fundamental to her as her blue eyes.

    The idea of a hospital agreeing to use a poster that says autism is a curable disease is profoundly shocking. I work in advertising, I know how ignorant we copywriters can be, but that's OK, that's where our clients set us straight (no, that's a wood stain, not a varnish, and we don't make it in blue). And I know a lot of marketing people who work for my clients, and they don't necessarily know that much about the technical stuff they're selling. But you would think SOMEONE in a hospital would know the difference.

    And there's the rub. People don't know what autism is. Hell, I expect some people think you can catch it. (Hmm... I have been known to bang my head on the wall sometimes...) :-) Have you seen the new campaign Mumsnet is running? It's to raise awareness of what it's like to have a child with a disability and to bust some myths. I think it's admirable, which is why I am about to shamelessly plug it, if that's OK with you?
    http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/this-is-my-child

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  2. Hiya Birdie, how are you and yours? Thanks for your very sensible comments. Yes, I've seen the Mumsnet campaign and been a part of it this week. Baby steps ..

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