The Truth about Autism (a talk)

Hi everyone. So, the first thing I wanted to do was express just how honoured and thrilled I am to have the opportunity to come here and share my experiences with an autism spectrum disorder and what I’ve learnt from them with all of you. This isn’t entirely because I love attention. As well as enjoying having all eyes on me for a few minutes, I’d love it if what I have to say would be of use to any of you who are going through the same things as my parents and teachers did.

Just a disclaimer before I start: this talk is going to be extremely honest. No doubt all of you are used to this from being around autistic people, but I think subjects relating to psychological conditions, perhaps more than anything else, should never be sugar-coated. We need to start having open, unapologetic conversations about mental conditions, or all the social stigma surrounding them will never go away. It’s going to be hard to do this topic justice in a few minutes, especially since I do like to waffle on a bit, but here is my attempt.

I’m going to start with my own experience. Since I was diagnosed at the age of 3 and my memory is a bit patchy around that age, I can’t really tell you what the process was like, but people first started really noticing that I was different when I didn’t play as I was meant to. Instead of finger-painting, or playing ball games, or showing any desire for social interaction at all, I would sit in the corner holding a StickleBrick and I would “stim” with it. “Stimming” is an abbreviation of self-stimulatory movement, and in my case, it takes the form of twiddling an object between my fingers or playing with my hair like this *demonstrates*. While I did this, I would be deep in thought, immersed in my own imagination. Along with this, my development seemed to be skewed: my fine motor skills were abysmal, and I didn’t learn to walk until I was 2, which was around the same age at which I learnt to read. So the diagnosis I ended up with was one of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some of you will know that this technically isn’t a legitimate condition anymore since it wasn’t included in the fifth edition of the DSM, but what it meant when I was diagnosed with it was essentially that I had a milder form of autism without any verbal communication deficit. That was quite an accurate diagnosis, actually, unless you count talking too much as a verbal communication deficit!

But the problem with having behavioural conditions, like autism spectrum disorders, is that their severity must be measured against a “normal” standard of behaviour. Unlike with a physical disorder, this norm can’t be derived from how we are supposed to function biologically, but how society tells us we are supposed to behave, since society, not biology, is the source of behavioural standards. So what my diagnosis with Asperger’s, considered a less severe form of autism, said about me was that I adhered to society’s definition of “normal” enough to go to mainstream school, and in the future to get qualifications and hopefully a job, but not enough to be treated like everyone else. And this was reflected in the way I was treated.

As you can imagine, this didn’t have a great effect on me. For eight years of my life, I lived like any other child, thought I WAS like any other child, but was treated differently everywhere, from the playground, to the classroom, to the Portacabin where I sometimes attended social skills sessions. And I had no idea why. When the school tried to help me through the social skills sessions and the Special Educational Needs group to which I gave the unloving nickname “Psycho Club” it only made me feel worse about myself. The result? My special interest became conforming. I tried all these different tactics to be like everyone else: pretending to be a tomboy, then pretending to like fashion and make-up, then trying to make people laugh by making a fool of myself…and all I wanted was to be normal.

This only stopped once I found out that I had Asperger’s. This discovery happened totally by accident. We went to the library as a class and I had to choose a non-fiction book, and after much grumbling, I chose one on very basic genetics and psychology called “What Makes Me Me?” There was one paragraph in this book on autism. And I read it, and thought “Oh my God. This…sounds exactly like me!” And there you have it! There were no deep conversations with anyone; I just asked my parents if I was autistic, received “yes” as an answer, and did all the research I wanted to myself.

Now, even this wasn’t the moment of liberation that you might have imagined it to be, because all it did was make me swing right the other way. Instead of feeling as though I had to be normal, now that I knew I had a condition, I felt that I had to be “weird”! I proudly went and told everyone about my Asperger’s and tried to act “crazy” as another method of being accepted by others. One could argue that being proud of my condition was preferable to beating myself up over it, but ultimately, my mentality was just the same as it had been before: I was still trying to conform to a certain standard expected of me in an attempt to be accepted. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen to someone who has just found out that they have autism. It happened to me in particular because I was so used to conformity, because I’d spent my whole life knowing I was different but not knowing how. To solve this problem, I would definitely recommend telling an autistic child that they have autism as early as possible. This will stop them from feeling like they’ve been kept in the dark, and maybe encourage them, as it encouraged me, to learn more about their condition.

So what actually was my moment of liberation? Surprisingly, it came with change: the change from primary to secondary school. During my last term at primary, I felt as though I had to make the most of every minute I had left, and consequently it was probably the best term of my life: I formed many new friendships, got a big part in the Year 6 Production that I’ll always remember, and went on my first residential trip away from home, where I was always well outside my comfort zone and had to really be brave and take responsibility for myself. Then that summer, I began my internet presence: I started a blog. I’d always done a lot of writing outside of school, but before I started blogging it had been a bit haphazard and didn’t have much structure to it. Blogging allowed me to share and organise my work, and the internet has been a huge driving force behind my past three obsessions. Since one needn’t worry about facial expressions or body language on the internet and can easily find many people with the same interests, it is so, so useful for people with ASDs who want to connect with others. Speaking about interests, developing a special interest and finding others to discuss and practise it with can inspire real happiness and confidence in an autistic person, and it should definitely be encouraged. The internet can make these interests both more fun and stimulating to pursue, and more social.

Finally, although the switch to secondary school can seem daunting, with support, organisational help and understanding staff, it could actually improve a child’s life a lot. For me, it was a chance to reinvent myself, form new relationships and truly devote myself to my passions, which I have a lot more time for now that I don’t have to worry about conforming. And if I could only make one point today, it would be that autistic children should be allowed to do this by themselves in a conducive environment. Sure, we do sometimes need support and we should be given it if we ask, but we generally like our autonomy, and too much support will have the effect of making us feel different from everyone else and feed this unhealthy desire to conform. I can confidently say that having independence and the ability to be treated in the same way as everyone else except when it’s needed has been the biggest help to me when dealing with autism, and I’m a much happier person for it. Thank you for listening


Musical Review: Bend It Like Beckham

(Another Arts Award thing.)

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In the melting pot that is London, there is no shortage of shows, exhibitions and other such events which focus on exploring cultural history, cultural conflict and the challenges – and benefits – of living in the totally diverse, globalised and multicultural society we have today. In this section of my portfolio, I’m going to be reviewing two musicals and an exhibition, each of which takes a look at a very different aspect of culture and presents its discoveries in a very different way.

The first of these is the musical Bend it Like Beckham. Originally produced as a comedy film in 1997 by British company Redbus Film Distribution (now Lionsgate), it isn’t exactly the most highbrow choice of musical and is more of a fun fest of lights, puns and action to watch with family. But as well as having its fair share of “coolness”, which my football-obsessed younger brother adored, the musical and the movie on which it was based has several important and relatable cultural messages, and is the kind of musical which would give any progressive in the audience the urge to stand up, pump their fist and yell “YES!” multiple times. The story is quite straightforward – an Indian girl growing up in the UK loves football, her traditionalist, first-generation immigrant parents forbid her from playing and she continues to play after being scouted by a team while hiding this from her family, against the backdrop of her sister’s turbulent love life and a love triangle involving her coach and her best friend – but there are enough twists and subplots to keep the plot itself fast-paced and entertaining.

I fell in love with the movie (and, needless to say, its male protagonist) when I first watched it. It had the perfect mix of humour, food for thought, a killer soundtrack and plenty of Indian cultural references. So as something of a musical aficionado, I was beyond excited when I found out that there was to be a musical version of the film, and my expectations were extremely high. Especially because the last two theatrical adaptations of pieces of art which I loved – 1984 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – had been stellar.

But unfortunately, I have now learnt not to expect so much. This musical was alright, but the film was a thousand times better. The problem wasn’t that the plot was not suited to the format of musicals. India has a rich (and very pleasing to the ear, though I may be slightly biased here) tradition of ethnic music, and a clever fusion of traditional and modern Indian music with Western music would have complemented the cultural clash narrated by the film really well. Instead, the music was mainly standard musical fare, all “heartfelt” ballads and showy dance numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it works perfectly well with other musicals, but it made this particular musical feel more like a generic love story and less like a story of cultural conundrums. The generic feel of the music also made the musical as a whole less relatable; I never felt completely “in the shoes” of the protagonist, I felt as though I was just watching another musical. Which, again, works in some circumstances – I’m a big fan of episches Theater. However, as an Indian girl who grew up in the UK and has no intention of adhering to cultural customs and gender roles, I expect to be able to relate to stories about other Indian girls who grew up in the UK and have no intention of adhering to cultural customs and gender roles. And the fact that I didn’t while watching this means that something went very wrong. As for characterisation, staging and so on, it was all good, but there was nothing special and nothing that I feel inclined to comment on in that regard.

The mediocrity of the musical aside, the story itself is filled with cultural commentary. By this I don’t mean some kind of technical anthropological analysis, but something which can often be more illuminating than such analyses: relatable description of a situation which is very real amongst immigrants who have had children in a radically culturally different country and are having to deal with the discomfort of deviation from tradition in their own homes. As a third-generation immigrant (well, de jure I’m second-generation, but my mother came to the UK at a very young age so she was more like a second-generationer) I never really understood the cultural dilemma faced by many first-generation immigrants over whether to stay true to their traditional values or adapt to the more progressive values of their Westernised offspring; for me, the question was a no-brainer because I’d been so culturally Westernised.

But as I now see, for someone who has already had to deal with the absorption of the culture shock which comes with migration and with the arduous task of surpassing cultural boundaries and forgetting much of what they were taught as a child, raising a child from birth in a Western country and therefore having them irrevocably shaped in a Western way must prove stressful. Because when your child is Western, your household can no longer be a haven, a miniature Ahmedabad/Nairobi/Warsaw/wherever in the UK. It too will become foreign to you. Before you know, a foreign tongue will ring through it, foreign films will be watched in it, foreign costume will be worn in it, foreign food and friends and partners will be brought home to it. And this – whether it “should” be or not – is frightening. People have something of a dialectical relationship with change: we crave the new but find comfort in the old. This, arguably, applies more to cultural change than any other sort of change; it’s why you may believe in “la vie sans frontières” but still think that “there’s no place like home.” In today’s world, where thousands of people move to another country every year and you can barely turn on the news without hearing a story about immigration, this is more relevant than ever.