“Would you like to pet the lambs?” This story comes back to me whenever I have to check in with myself on whether I’m ‘doing neurodiversity right’.
Let me explain.
It was shortly after my son’s autism diagnosis, and many months before I’d cottoned on that I was also autistic. We were visiting an open farm as part of a large group of families, enjoying the opportunity to meet other parents raising kids on the spectrum. Our lives had become very small in those early days, as we tried to process what autism meant for our beautiful boy, and even though our conversations with others in the group were fleeting (punctuated as they were by Darragh’s frequent bids for freedom), it was the most relaxed we’d felt in months. The staff had been informed in advance that an autism group was coming so no one was batting an eyelid at how the kids were acting. Plus, it was a chance to show off my nice new ‘Embrace Autism’ hoodie.
We’d taken Darragh into a barn to see some animals. We were barely through the door when he bolted again. My husband took off after him at speed – he’s a much faster runner than me so is our ‘first responder’ – and I figured I might as well take a quick look around before I caught up with them.
I was standing by a pen with some lambs in it. A member of staff, an earnest young man, quickly came over when he saw me standing on my own, opened the gate and invited me to come into the pen for a closer look. That’s nice, I thought.
He pointed out to me that the lambs were wearing little bibs around their necks with numbers on them. Okaaay…
That’s when he asked me the question: “Would you like to pet the lambs?”
“Um… no thanks,” I replied, starting to feel a bit awkward.
Misinterpreting my hesitancy, he urged me again to pet them. “It’s okay – you’re allowed!” he said slowly and deliberately, with an encouraging smile…..and a furtive glance at the word ‘Autism’ on my hoodie.
I took the only course of action my brain could think of in that moment: I legged it. (That day, my husband became the second fastest runner.)
I laughed about it that night online with the other parents, feeling a bit bad that I’d probably left the poor bloke worried he’d caused a vulnerable adult to go on the run.
Looking back at it now, I wonder how my mortification at being mistaken for an adult with ‘classic’ autism sits with my support for neurodiversity. Can you really claim to be a proponent of neurodiversity if you want to promote acceptance and respect for some minds but not others?
No, you can’t.
Not wanting to be seen as disabled, and being so quick to disassociate myself from those who have higher support needs, was a form of ‘othering’. What I have learned from this is that if I truly want to challenge society’s negative attitudes to those of us who have neurodivergent minds, the first person I have to challenge is myself.
I see this type of ‘othering’ quite often within the autistic community, and also among people with physical disabilities. I can understand how frustrating it must be if your mental capacity is continually underestimated. There is still a tendency for non-disabled people to patronise and infantilise those with additional needs, talk over their heads and presume incompetence. It may be meant kindly enough, but it is not respectful. I can understand the desire to protest your intelligence.
However, by being too quick to disassociate, and by taking offence at being perceived as having a cognitive impairment, the risk is that we further reinforce the stigma of disability. That goes directly against what I understand the ethos of neurodiversity to be. ‘Nothing about us without us’ must be inclusive, otherwise those are very hollow words indeed.
No matter how fair-minded we think we might be, the fact is that everyone – yes, everyone – has in-built prejudices. Sometimes we’re barely aware we have them. The first step is to acknowledge them. The second is to challenge ourselves and be open to respectful challenge from others. Those of us who are involved in autism or disability advocacy have, I believe, an added responsibility to do so and can learn much from each other. I have certainly learned a lot from others who have been active in the Neurodiversity Movement for longer than me.
“Would you like to pet the lambs?” “No, thank you, but my son might like to – if we ever catch him.”
About Maura Campbell
Maura is from Northern Ireland. She lives with her husband Stephen, her son Darragh, Ash the assistance dog and Baz the cat in the rolling countryside of County Down. She is a senior manager in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and served as a board member of Specialisterne NI from 2014-2016. Maura has spoken publicly about autism in both a personal and professional capacity and guest lectures at the University of Ulster once a year. She was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2011 when she was 44 years old. Like many adults on the spectrum, she sought the diagnosis after learning that her son had autism .