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World Autism Awareness Day: Entertainments of Possibility and Connection

April 2nd

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World Autism Awareness Day: Entertainments of Possibility and Connection

Join us today in celebrating World Autism Day, heading up a month of awareness building and campaigning championed by the UN. Many will be sharing stories and initiatives over the course of April, but in this pause between semesters I wanted to offer a few recommendations on texts that are currently informing my work with students, organisations, and schools, and continuing to open my eyes and heart, both personally and professionally.

Autism is one of a number of dimensions of experience which are redrawing what we know of ourselves, individually and socially. How it relates to race and gender within that wider realignment is an ongoing story, and well attended to by narratives on intersectionality. The extent to which a quiet, steady consensus is beginning to move these narratives away from the more socially polarised and ethically paradoxical, and to reflect the tolerance and diversity claimed by the ‘British Values’ at the heart of teachers’ standards within the UK, is very much dependent upon relative positions of privilege and power.

As we wrestle with debates on inclusion and suitable school and societal structures, myths and misconceptions about autism (particularly the purported lack of a ‘theory of mind’, and that ‘everybody is on the spectrum’) are being steadily dismantled to make way for a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding.

For me, these three texts are contributing to wider perspectives on social justice, and join the impact of campaigners such as Reni Eddo-Lodge, Soma Sara, and bell hooks.

1.Empire of Normality: Neurodiversity and Capitalism by Robert Chapman was published last year and is a hot topic within my small cluster of academic colleagues. It is a compelling history of normativity and diversity and one which traces the pivotal emergence of a social model of disability. This model distinguishes between impairment and disability, and as such suggests that disability only arises when society is organised in such a way as to prevent access to those with specific impairments. They cite the originator of the term ‘neurodiversity’, Harvey Blume, who wrote in 1998:

“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment.”

Of note is the caveat not to consider neurodiversity as a complex but potentially rich seam from which to selectively mine cognitive and creative economic advantage. As such, they grapple well with the boundaries of provision for impairment and inclusion in terms of specialist support, redrawing the cultures and frameworks of a normative society. This has implications for school design and the extent to which specialist provision currently serves communities and how much it calcifies division. Amidst a particular political vantage point, they conclude with an observation that has a compelling coherence:

“A radical politics of neurodivergent conservation is also consistent with a radical politics of environmental conservation.”

2. Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience is a tour de force which fundamentally renews our conception of what ‘thinking’ is and how it manifests. Erin Manning and Brian Massumi offer a reunification of the conceptual and the aesthetic that is most potent when describing some of the unique features of ‘autistic perception’. This is far from what Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Melanie Yergeau identify as “the claim that autistic people lack a theory of mind” which they rightfully lambast as “empirically questionable and societally harmful.”[1] Instead, ‘autistic perception’ is celebrated in its prevalence for an expanded field awareness which delays contracting experience into discrete and separate entities and objects, and instead preserves and promotes a capacity for connection, an ecology of being where we are intrinsically connected, and by the nature of our very being, belong.

Manning and Massumi’s contrast of ‘entertainment’ over ‘entrainment’ is one of connection over separation, and has fundamental implications for societal systems, including schools, which currently tend to be based on journeys of isolated individuation rather than any networked ecologies of being. Such ‘entertainment’ has existential implications for neurotypical normativity as social and historical assumptions are challenged and reshaped.

Elsewhere, Erin Manning has suggested that:

“In the context of education… the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.” [1]

Simply put, autistic perception is more attuned to its social and physical environment than the neurotypical, with clear implications for environmentally aware and future-oriented curricula.

I see this vividly in my own experience during a late-adulthood discovery of autism. Encountering a climbing wall as part of an access-friendly Paraclimb Collective was a humbling discipline of dissolving what I experienced as social awkwardness towards banter in neurotypical environments. It was recently suggested to me that banter and gaslighting are tools of a combative neurotypical rhetoric which seek to invalidate emergent social values. This observation has cast new light on my once vehement challenge to banter when a headteacher, and my current guidance to organisations and schools is to cultivate social scenarios where access needs are invited as a matter of course, a practice which might be part of the undercurrent for a new model of inclusion.

3. On Connection by Kae Tempest is just a few years old. Its publication coincided with a visit to Womad to see them live. It saw me hovering at the edge of a dense crowd with waves of proximity overload but witness nevertheless to a stunning array of language and light. I was reminded of a Finnish Eurythmy performance of the Kalevala in Dornach some ten years earlier, and the strange connections we make across our lives. The book itself is a heart-wrenching and elevating eulogy to our human capacity for connection, and how “immersion in creativity can bring us closer to each other and help us cultivate greater self-awareness.”

An inclusive framework is being slowly articulated in our culture, not least in the renewal of our linguistic structures, and how difference and diversity are described. The necessary blurring of boundaries between academics, activists and artists is a welcome support to teachers and headteachers championing connection over correction in schools, and Kae Tempest’s voice is a clarion call:

“Connection balances numbness. Connection is the first step towards any act of acknowledgement, accountability or responsibility.”

The implications of this slow turning of a social body towards greater connection and diversity are many. For schools, however, and for our education system, it might be pointing towards the need for more modest scales of delivery. It may be that smaller schools promote more potential for human connection over the industrial processes of larger institutions, and in which integration and inclusion have a better chance of making intersectionality visible. It may also be that the debates about hierarchising banter fall away in favour of understanding how we can better enable access for all, and ask each other, and listen, about our experience.

Paul Hougham is a neurodivergent academic and consultant educationalist, a one-time Headteacher, and currently CEO of Waldorf Learning Foundation. He is a co-course leader of the Postgraduate Diploma in Waldorf Education and Creative Pedagogies at Bath Spa University.


[1] https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-1-4780-1107-1_601.pdf


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6959478/