Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Autism and Acceptance: The 'Overton Window'

I thank my USA colleagues for introducing me to the "Overton Window".  It was a book by Glenn Beck.  It describes which ideas people will tolerate, and which are rejected.  Which are debated, and which are silenced as being too unacceptable. 

I've designed an example. It is shown below.
The example is the reality that some autistic people can make good business leaders. Right now, that's unthinkable by most of the public.  We need people to understand that it's a reality, and gradually change their opinion.   They need to first consider it as a radical idea.  Then realise it's acceptable. Then realise it's sensible.  We can have excellent skills of integrity, fantastic specialised knowledge, dedication, etc.    Not all autistic people are good at being a professional or leader.  Not all people with blonde hair or size seven feet make good business leaders or professionals either.  It depends on the skill set.  But it is true that we have autistic professionals; lawyers, accountants, surveyors, doctors, etc.  Many are too worried to disclose it.  Why?  Because of that 'Overton Window' effect.  The public deciding what's unthinkable, and what's not.

Ideas start off as 'unthinkable'.  People won't debate them.  Then are 'radical'. Debate starts.  Then ideas may be become 'acceptable'.  Then are seen as 'sensible'.  Some go on to be 'popular'.  Politicians mostly like the 'popular' ones.  Those are the ones that get laws, funding, etc.

So much about autism is still apparently unthinkable.  The idea that many of us are women.   Or identify as part of the LGBT community.  Or can talk. Or are just as likely to be nice, kind people.  Or, indeed, can be competent and highly skilled employees and leaders, in the right place/with the right team and support.

People like me and so many excellent colleagues? We gradually shift the 'Overton Window'.  We get people thinking about why it's unthinkable.  Gradually moving the debate along, past 'radical', and into 'acceptable'.  Once it's there, we can start really talking about the realities.  We get the data.  We keep asking to be heard.

Right now, society pretends most of us don't exist.   In media and debates, so often autistic people have to be male, have to be 'dangerous', have to be non-verbal or a computer-geek.  The others of us...the majority....we are invisible.  We're not in that 'Overton Window' of public debate yet.  If we try discussing the 'unthinkable' ideas, we get silenced. We get demonised. We are seen as troublemakers.  The people no-one wants on the media.

Let's work together to get that debate shifted to where it belongs.  Where autistic people are seen as we are, as people with so much to give.  Not as a set of walking myths and misunderstandings, or 'self narrating zoo exhibits'.

I am very thankful for excellent colleagues in this country and elsewhere who want to be part of that change.