“What’s The Point?” a Pathway to Inclusion for Autistic and Neurodivergent People
By Jeff Baker
Inclusion is the new buzz word in the 21st century, and rightly so. We should be innovating and striving for greater levels of inclusion, but typically when people think of inclusion they imagine ways of bringing marginalised people into what they consider normalcy rather than altering what’s considered normal to include marginalised people. You can see this happening a lot in almost every area of advocacy and inclusion. Many organisations think being culturally inclusive means hiring one person of colour and expecting them to merge into the existing white dominant culture rather than restructuring to include a wide breadth of cultural and class diversity and truly valuing the different perspectives and ways of doing things these people bring to the table. Typically people will be open to 2SLGBTQIA+ diversity so long as that diversity fits into a preconceived cultural model of cis heteronormativity. Disability inclusion typically involves able bodied and non disabled people making accommodations they think will help the disabled community without actually consulting the disabled community. And when it comes to autism and neurodiversity we have multiple methods of trying to force autistic and neurodiverse people into looking and acting allistic and neurotypical rather than actually accommodating their needs.
As an autistic clergy person and community facilitator myself, I am often consulted on how to make religious and community spaces more accessible to autistic and neurodivergent people. The question I always ask the people I’m talking to is this: What’s the point? What is the point of what you are doing here? Not in a rude way, legitimately, what is the goal of your organisation? If the goal of a church service is to provide access to community, spiritual guidance, and a learning opportunity, success in those areas will look very different for an autistic than they will for an allistic person. And to be clear, every autistic person is different and there is no one size fits all solution. Instead we need to be open to rejecting the appearance of normalcy in favour of actually reaching the goal. An allistic or neurotypical person will show they are paying attention by sitting still, making eye contact, possibly nodding, or offering verbal cues that they understand what is being said. And while I can do all those things, I am masking when I do them. All my energy is going into appearing allistic and when I do that I don’t have a lot of mental bandwidth left to store information or even comprehend what is being said. However, if I’m allowed to disengage eye contact, draw, or move around the space I’m in, my comprehension and recollection ability skyrockets. But to an allistic or neurotypical person it looks like I’m not listening or being rude. So what is the point? Is the point the appearance of normalcy? Or is the point me hearing and understanding what’s being said to me? True inclusion allows me to exist in the space as I am, not how you would like me to be.
Now, there are times where people have conflicting needs. Perhaps one person requires the ability to make real time commentary about what they are learning out loud, and another person requires absolute silence, these two needs conflict with each other. But the answer is to work with both parties in that case to find a solution that works for everyone and doesn’t isolate or cut someone off from the community.
Likewise, in a work environment getting maximum productivity out of me is going to look different than an allistic or neurotypical person. I might need to have a podcast on in the background to distract the ADHD part of my brain and actually be able to focus on a task. If I have a day full of socializing that will require a degree of masking I may need to schedule a buffer day of quiet work to recover and recalibrate. I may need to take frequent breaks and work an overall longer day so I don’t burn myself out powering through long stretches of focus. That being said, my needs will be different than every other autistic person, so true inclusion requires involving the people you are trying to include in the solution.
Different attention levels and sensory needs will require different solutions, but we must always come back to the question: What’s the point? If the point is productivity and longevity in work situations, or community and comprehension in religious situations, or retention and recall in education situations, then simply striving for the appearance of normalcy while having autistics and neurodiverse people in the room is not true inclusion. True inclusion involves redefining what normal is, and that’s the point.
2SLGBTQIA+: an acronym that stands for Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual. The plus sign indicates a wider spectrum of gender and sexuality that is recognized and included in the community but that was not mentioned in the acronym.
Cis heteronormativity: what is considered culturally normal for cisgendered heterosexuals
Neurodiversity: the diversity of neurologies found within a given population
Autism: a variant neurological structure that does not pare back unused neurons and can result in sensory overload
Autistic: the preferred nomenclature for people diagnosed with autism
Allistic: not autistic
Neurotypical: the dominant neurology within a given population
Neurodivergent: not neurotypical
Masking: the method by which autistic people adopt neurotypical behaviours to blend in with their peers and avoid social ostracization
ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder