From neurodiversity to neuroharmony, we must reframe our view of autism.
By Holly Bridges
So much of traditional autism therapy is devoted to removing variances and aligning with the typical. What if this is a false benchmark against which we judge those on the autism spectrum?
For too long we have had a very narrow focus on autism as deficit without being able to see the incredible benefits associated with being on the spectrum. A hundred years or so of a reductionist model has left us focused on deficits and seeing pathology instead of looking through the wider lens of enhanced perception and alternate ways of seeing and being. This has been to the detriment of us all.
Reframing autism is about celebrating diversity. It is tapping into the innate intelligence, brilliance and creativity of enhanced perception – a field that people on the spectrum often inhabit – and then helping people to make the most of their gifts.
The world has always been made up of a wide variety of people whose unique differences make the world a better place, yet the collusion of the normative experience as the only authentic way to live has left many individuals, and not just those on the autism spectrum – feeling marginalised, out of place and unseen.
When we seek to define our humanity in a narrow bandwidth, we fail to see the remarkable abilities that are staring us in the face. People on the autism spectrum have sensory abilities, not just ‘issues’. They feel and see things differently, often with exquisite empathy and sensitivity. People on the spectrum don’t just have sensory overload, but often wonderful, enhanced sensory perception. They see in images, they see the whole not just the sum of its parts; there can be a ‘complex flow of ideas streaming from a rich sensory experience mixed with an awareness of the world as free form’1. In many ways it is a more open and sophisticated way of seeing and being.
This is antithetical to the fixed and objectified left-brain way of seeing that the Western world has come to prize so highly. The desire to dissect and measure; to prove and disprove; to attain purity has all been a part of our collective culture and has been intimately linked with our university systems, wider education; research and our clinical practice. The institutionalisation of ‘normal’ has left us unable to see and appreciate the gifts that come with a more nuanced way of being in the world.
People on the spectrum often feel alienated. It is hard to be understood if you think and speak in pictures, smells and colours and everybody else is speaking and thinking in words. In a neurotypical world that excludes that which is not the same, it is almost impossible for those on the spectrum – living authentically – to be seen and understood.
“While all perception includes an edging-into-form, more neurotypically aligned perception in most cases occludes the process itself: objects and subjects are seen and not their process of coming-into-form. Autistic perception dwells in the interstitial, perceiving the process itself.” *Erin Manning 2
The neurotypical mind can learn a lot from the complexity, scope and flavours of enhanced perception. When we work within this framework, therapeutically, we help bring purpose and choice to the process. When we do not, we stamp a neurotypical mould that flattens the complex sensory system and deadens or overwhelms the autist.
We have to be mindful of the delicacy of working with people who are used to being violated by the practices of cultural norms. We have to learn validate experience that is dissimilar to ours and learn not to stamp our own preconceived ideas about how we think things should look.
This is much easier for neurodiverse practitioners than it is for people who have comfortably grown up in the normative system. Neurotypical practitioners are used to the rules, regulations and expectations of normative culture. These rules don’t work with someone on the spectrum. Neurodiverse therapy needs to be considerate of a whole lot of new information. It needs to play witness to an emerging self; it cannot be directive; it needs to encourage not inform; it needs to honour what it does not know and see the client and their nervous system as infinitely intelligent regardless of outward capacity. We need to remember that people with autism are highly individual, for example, not all people on the spectrum experience enhanced perception in the same way and not all people on the spectrum love repetition. The work has to be creative, distinct and artful.
People with autism often have a delicate antenna. They live in a subtle nervous system. Autism is a whole- body, sensory experience not a left-brain dominant one and as such we get much further when we work with the sensory system at the same time. This shifts the goal posts again. Instead of outward progress and growth, the focus becomes one of subtle manifestation; of connection; safety; mastery and resilience at an interstitial level. Instead of teaching skills and coping strategies we teach how to work with the nervous system so it can stay strong and connected with incoming sensory information. We guide rather than instruct and work together to provide a new level of self-composure that becomes a uniquely individual experience.
Diversity is the essence of brilliance and when we stifle it in a neurotypical mould, it is the world’s loss. We need to adapt and create new, more appropriate and innovative ways to support this way of being.
To promote diversity, we need to see it as a human, evolving function. Instead of platitudes and seeing people as ‘special’ we must appreciate advanced ways of seeing and perceiving. We need to open our minds to possibilities; listen more and refrain from further categorising and layering over our own cultural expectations.
We need to educate and provide new models of experience; new therapies based on neurodivergent sensibilities. To do this we have to embrace the innovators, the outliers, the people who are trying to make a difference and by definition this cannot be done within a large organisation and with ‘evidence- based research’. What we already know about autism and autism services is not what we want to know. This has been said time and time again by the users of the services – people with autism and Asperger’s – who are dismayed, disheartened and sometimes disgusted by what is deemed appropriate for them.
“Change comes about when we go beyond present injurious anomolies, not trying to fix them but celebrate the improvisational possibilities of producing new mutually developed interdependent systems that support our ecology of mind.” Dr. Kenneth Silvestri
There is much to be gained by adopting a more complex and intricate paradigm of autism and reframing it from something we need to ‘fix’ to something we can explore. This is not to say that there are not many ways in which people on the spectrum experience difficulties and a greater level of comorbid conditions (anxiety, depression, digestive issues, selective mutism etc) than the general population and not all these can be explained from a cultural perspective. We need to be mindful of the variety of people on the spectrum, validate the complexity it brings and see it as an opportunity to further our collective knowledge and evolution.
‘Neuroharmony’ is an emerging theme and it allows a way forward. We are in a cultural revolution like has never been seen before and many, many people are trying their best to be of use and to widen understanding. If anything, the ‘norm’ is the enemy, not actual people and we get further when we can remain open and just whilst redirecting efforts for assistance that are in line with our evolving consciousness and desire for change.
1 + 2 From ‘Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm’ Brad Evans interviews Erin Manning
Holly Bridges is a neurodivergent author, teacher and therapist who works to promote a greater appreciation of autism and Aspergers. She has written an internationally acclaimed book, ‘Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism‘ and her A.R.T. of Body Cognition autism therapy, based on neuroscience and the Polyvagal Theory, has won an NDS Excellence in Innovation Award, 2018. Holly travels extensively sharing her work and sees clients in Perth, Western Australia and on Skype.
Holly gained a strong desire to develop a more conducive autism therapy. The idea that autism as a ‘brain deficit’ meant that therapists came hard up against a ‘glass ceiling’ of what could be achieved for people on the spectrum. She also saw just how many people were disenchanted with the current system and how much they needed a more expansive and positive model. Through her critically acclaimed book, Holly has helped thousands of parents, autists, educators and therapists perceive a more positive and helpful way of perceiving autism and she has affected hundreds of families from the severely challenged and non-verbal, to many adults with Asperger’s, right through to the very young with her simple and effective A.R.T. techniques. Her mission is to bring this to the world. Her passion is teaching children and adults how to enhance their capacity to learn. She is an author, teacher and keynote speaker. Her website is www.zebr.co
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