Friday, 13 October 2017

Rochdale Autism Conference

Yesterday we were at the Rochdale Autism Conference with our stickmen.

Although the lecture room was too hot to get more than a few snippets of 2 of the many talks, I was impressed with what I heard.

There was one about body language - I heard the section on eye contact. Rather than saying 'teach them to make eye contact' it went through some of the unspoken and unconscious 'rules' that many NT's know by instinct but aren't always conscious of, like that if you look anywhere in the triangle between tip of nose and outside of eyebrows (including they eyes) - that communicates interest and listening. Looking at the mouth is flirting behaviour - or means they have spinach in your teeth or are lip-reading. It really highlighted the importance of not trying to force rule-compliance, but creating rule understanding- and also realising that we don't have to make eye contact - focusing on the bridge of the nose, for example, can be just as effective in communicating that interest. (at this point I melted and had to leave)

The talk by Ros (an autistic woman) was brilliant - very real. Pointed out the absurd communication contradictions "would you like to sign in" means please sign in or I'll get stroppy. But "would you like a cup of coffee" 30 seconds later means "you can if you want, but you don't have to". - but how is she supposed to know when it's giving an option and when it's a 'polite' demand? - which NT's just seem to 'know'. Because the NT's automatic is an autistic's conscious and constant learning process and logical 'working things out'. Similar issues with deciphering 'can you' - is it an "are you theoretically capable of it" or a request that you do it now?

She also covered things like how dealing with money in the classroom was fine - she was good at maths. But in a shop? - not a chance. one mars bar is 50p, the change from £1 will be 50p - she knows this - put mars bar on the counter...and it becomes a social situation 

"isn't it lovely weather" 
...where did that come from? What has the weather got to do with the cost of a mars bar? 
"Would you like our carrier bag?" 
why are they asking for my opinion on a carrier bag? Do they mean do I like the colour, or the design? Is it some new marketing campaign that they are researching? If I say no, will they get really upset? 
- all these thoughts and processing taking up the space needed for processing the actual transaction she came to complete and creating a very stressful situation.

She spoke about how these situations aren't things autistics are incapable of understanding - but that they all need to be consciously learnt - rather than instinctively picked up. Which takes masses of energy and concentration - and can also come with a feeling of huge pressure to get it right because everyone else seems to get it so easily - and a sense of failure when they get something wrong that everyone else finds obvious. 

As a non-autistic, it was both refreshing and eye opening to hear about autism in a way that was so real, and practical and lived. I wish I'd been able to hear her whole talk, but the heat said no so I had to leave for somewhere cooler to lie down.

It made me realise how vital it is that I am direct and clear with how I say things. And not to underestimate the energy expended by an autistic person navigating social interactions.

They also had a group of autistic teens talking about their experiences. I didn't hear this part but the feedback I heard about it was great.

And from a stickman point of view - it was good. The only downside was that the room with the exhibitors in was small and got really crowded. I think a lot of autistic visitors didn't make it into the exhibitors area although a lot of the professionals did.

Having said that, we had lots of people discovering our resources for the first time. And lots of great feedback - especially on the status squares, wristbands and keyring cards.

We had one fascinating incident where we tried (I'm not sure how successfully) to explain to a non-autistic adult that stickmen weren't just for primary school children, but were designed with teens, and adults, and that the colour and humour helped break down barriers and assumptions - making the cards more effective. We know not everyone likes the colour and simplicity - that's fine. We all have to find what works for us. But this individual firmly believed that no autistic teenager would use them. A little voice of doubt started to question my work. Then an autistic teenager came over - and went flappy at the 'Go Away' card - which was actually borrowed later in the day (with a lanyard) after an overwhelm happened, and they'd recovered enough to go in and listen - but were not ready to interact with people. 

All in all an exhausting, insightful, and worthwhile day.