Monday, 1 April 2019

Autism, Age, Wisdom

A photograph of a group of older people of various ethnicities, smiling

In an online poll this week, autistic people were asked whether others mistook their age.  Perhaps thinking they were older than they actually are, or younger.  The results are interesting.

A screenshot of a Twitter poll as described in the text
Out of nearly 900 votes on Twitter thus far, the big majority say they are told they look younger than they are.  I wonder if this is part of why we think autism is to do with young people?

It's a challenge, autism and ageing.  Partly because we have almost no research on autistic older people.  Thus, the general - and incorrect -  view of society is that we're best represented by children, teenagers or young adults.   Partly, the myths that we are all 'childlike' to use a phrase, based on the idea that because some have a deep focus on (say) collecting things, it must mean that we're stuck in a child-like phase of life, unable to match adult responsibilities.  Some have had their IQ measure with the wrong test, leading to the conclusion that lots have a low IQ when they they do not.  It's all been a mess.

All of this leads to some very wrong conclusions about autistic people.  That we are foolish, incompetent, 'little more than children' in the way we think.

For a start, I can safely say that after decades of working with and alongside autistic people of all kinds, I've never met a wiser group of people, in general.  I'll continue to generalise:  Instead of being focused on pleasing the majority, the autistic quest for fairness and social justice is a constant theme.  Instead of thinking everyone must show sophisticated interests suitable for some 'high society' magazine, in order to display a high social and intellectual rank, many autistic people have found joy in any number of wider interests.  Those deep interests lead some to become the world's experts in those topic, whether it's forming world-leading and important collections, deep knowledge of subjects that benefit all of humanity, or a singular joy in a favourite topic or hobby.

If we look at the UK at the moment, our young people are facing one of the worst crises of any 'first world' nation.  The NHS 2017 mental health survey for children and young people found that 1 in 8 now has a mental health difficulty.  Around 1 in 6 of the oldest of the teenagers. Figures that are rising year on year.  Many say that the pressure on them to be sophisticated, fashionable, slim, fit, academically excellent, has driven them to absolute despair.

I think we forgot to let our young people be young.
I think we forgot the value of joy in more simple things.
I think we pressure everyone to be 'normal' or better.  Academically, in terms of looks, in terms of their interests.

And I think we forgot the deep wisdom to be found, not in academic centres of learning, (some of which frankly have driven this nation to the brink of disaster at present  - think of the Eton situation and senior leaders in society getting picked mostly because they went there) but in those who are amongst the most marginalised and seem to be the most 'unsophisticated'.

We've been looking for wisdom in the wrong places.  

There is much to be gained from spending time with autistic people.  Re-learning what is also important.  Re-listening to what also matters.  Re-understanding what it is to have a different culture and communication style, a different set of priorities.

We need to research the lives of older autistic people.  More than that, though,we need realise that society needs the minds, the joys, the deep interests, of autistic people of every kind.

Thank you.