Monday 13 May 2019

Autistic People. So, new Research. Different social skills, not broken ones.

Two people sitting side by side at a park bench table.  We can only see part of them. There are cups of coffee.

For decades, autistic people have been told that our way of socialising and co-operating is a broken version of the 'real thing',

Many autistic people have been put through endless coercive techniques to correct this alleged set of problems.  Children have been put through year after year of exhausting therapies to make them co-operate and collaborate exactly like so-called Normal Children.  Yet, curiously, we weren't seeing good outcomes.  We are seeing deeply concerning rates of mental health difficulties including worrying links to suicide and PTSD.  So, what's been going wrong?  Why aren't autistic people any better off after all this enforced normalisation?  Weren't we supposed to be happy and integrated now, with better jobs and better social lives?

What went wrong with the theory?

This year, at the international autism conference, INSAR 2019, a session and poster by a team of well respected researchers at the University of Edinburgh who dared to question this idea that autism  = broken social skills.  They are presenting their research at various events.

"In essence, what we are demonstrating for the first time is that autistic people's social behaviour includes effective communication and effective social interaction, in direct contradiction of the diagnostic criteria for autism. We have, for the first time, uncovered empirical evidence that there is a form of social intelligence that is specific to autistic people."

In other words, different social skills, not broken ones. We have our own social signalling and can co-operate and interact effectively....with each other. Likewise, non-autistic people can generally co-operate and interact effectively...with each other. But put one of each group together, and they both tend to misunderstand one another. They don't feel rapport with one another, that sense that you just 'click' with someone and understand them.

This isn't a new theory, of course. Dr Damian Milton has been discussing Double Empathy theory for a while now.  

Shall we take a moment to shuffle uncomfortably in our seats, reflecting on the endless books, articles,training programmes and materials describe autistic people as deficient in social understanding? All recommending that it's the autistic people who do 100% of the changing?

Actually, autistic people generally understood each other well.  We always have.  The problem is that the non-autistic people didn't understand us.

And we didn't understand the non-autistic people.

So, may I invite researchers, writers and trainers to take a deep breath, and decide to look anew at autistic people?

What's needed is interpreters and social language experts.  Those who can skill both groups in the 'language' of the other group.  Those who can meet people from the other group and say, "I would love to learn your natural communication style, as a new language, a new way of interacting.  And I would love to show you our own way of communicating, which is different.  Together, we can learn not to misunderstand one another, and both of us can learn to communicate more effectively with one another.  Together, we can both learn how to be friends, colleagues, and do great things together."

Can we do that? 

I think we can.

Thank you for reading.