Sunday, 18 September 2016

Autism: Body Autonomy for girls and women

This is an important subject.  I'm seeing a lot of autism colleagues start to talk about it.  We need to talk more about it.

You see, if you are disabled, somehow you lose some of the right to decide who does what with your body.

Friends who are wheelchair users say that fairly often, people will push their chair for them, without permission.  They will also pat them on the head.  Carers may turn up and treat them as a job, not a person.  Dignity, gone.  Personal space, gone.  Freedom of choice, gone.  Rough handling, hardly a cheery word.  An assumption that they all have a low IQ and no speech.

The same is true for a good few autistic people.  Some of the therapies are designed to take all control of our bodies away from us. 
Want to move your hands so that you can sense where they are, in relation to things?  No.
Want to move round the room so you can find out its boundaries in the sensory 'fog' around you?  No.

Want to choose where to look, so you are not overwhelmed by social input?  No, you can look into someone's eyes or be punished if you don't.
Want to decide to wear clothing that isn't searingly painful on the skin?  No.
Want to express the same degree of anger as a non-autistic person?  You can't.  It's deemed 'challenging behaviour' if you're autistic, and you may be wrestled to the ground or have your arms pinned painfully.  You may be force-hugged or have your arms grabbed.  no matter how much it hurts.
People come up to you and think it's OK to move your body to where they want it, without permission.  To do things to you, without permission.   You're not allowed to say no, because you're autistic, you see.

And that constant training that we're not allowed to say's soul-destroying.   It's dehumanising.   It's a total lack of body autonomy.  A total lack of respect for us as human beings of equal worth to others.
We know the statistics for how many autistic women go on to be sexually assaulted or raped.  The figures are horrifying.

It's equally important that boys are taught safe boundaries for themselves, of course.

Some autistic people are very clear on their boundaries, and very assertive.

Others need people to be aware of vulnerabilities.

So, what I teach is a simple list of things to check, in any non-emergency situation:

"Do I, as a non-autistic person, have the right to tell you, as an autistic person, what to do with your body? Or to make physical contact with you to make you do something?
Where is the power in this relationship?  Am I about to misuse my authority over you?  Am I stronger than you, faster, bigger, in a position of power over you, able to use words to win any argument with you?
Is my decision fair?
Did I explain it to you?
Did I give you a chance to explain your own reasons to me?  Either in words, or in the other communication methods you use?
Did I listen with respect, to your words or your other communication methods?
Did we agree between us a way forward, rather than me impose one on you?
Am I using any physical contact with you in a consensual way?
Am I being respectful of your body, your ability to say no at any stage?

Would I do this thing to a non-autistic person?  So what gives me the right to impose it on you?"

There is nothing better, for some of us, sometimes, than a cheery hug agreed between loving family or friends.  Let us decide if this is something we want.  Don't impose it.

It's good sometimes for some of us to allow a genuine, consensual demonstration of something... by guiding our hand to learn a new skill of art or music etc - done safely and properly.  Yes, a therapist is checked and qualified to know what's appropriate and safe to achieve a task.  That's not the issue.  The issue is having it done to us without consent.

There is nothing lonelier than being the only one not hugged, because others are too afraid to go near us.  This is an important point.  Good safeguarding is nothing at all to do with everyone being too afraid to go near one another, under any circumstances.  That becomes the opposite sort of safeguarding problem, where people die of loneliness and the lack of kind human experience.  People who are isolated and lonely live far fewer years, on average.   The 'middle ground' is what we are looking for here.
But...there is nothing scarier than someone arriving into our personal space, without consent...., and doing weird things to us also without consent...then making out that they are a personal saviour of all autistic-kind for their Generous Contribution.  Knickers to that.  To use a phrase. 

We are not your ticket to heaven or a way to get an Honour for your Saintly Behaviour towards us.  We're people.  We may communicate differently and have different needs, but we are not 'less' than you.

Autistic young people need to know that they are able to say no.  That their body belongs to them, not to other people.  And that others are watchful for those who have little regard for these realities.

Teach your young people when it's OK to say no.  Demonstrate respectful boundaries and safe cheery human relationships.  Learn about how we demonstrate those relationships ourselves; we use a different communication system to that of other people.  Ours is not a broken version of yours; ours is genuinely different.

In autistic groups, we don't use eye contact, because we are respecting one another.
We don't face one another to talk, because we are respecting one another.
We don't often move one another's possessions, but play respectfully with our own, alongside others.
We don't overload the other autistic person with 'small talk', because we know that it will overheat their brain wiring.
We don't usually need to say 'I love you' in words, because we demonstrate it with respectful behaviour and wanting to be with someone.  Ours tends to be a non-verbal system.

It's unfortunate that all of this got mistaken for, 'Poor dears don't understand human relationships'.
To us, your non-autistic way of communicating is often rude and disrespectful of us.

Challenge people who do not respect our boundaries
Challenge people who use negative and belittling terms for us.

Thank you for learning about us and honouring us in that.
We're lovely people, most of us.  I am honoured to know so many very kind, thoughtful, empathetic, generous and caring autistic friends and colleagues.
What I want is a safer world for our own children.  They need to grow up knowing that it is OK to say...