Accepting Difference: One Year On
Happy June everyone! I had a reminder that one year ago today the first article I wrote about autism and the church went live. The post is here. Such a lot has happened over the last year - things many thought would have not happened or be possible. Yesterday I also got my exam results for the first year of my masters and clearly surpassed myself, somehow. Learning about things I never thought I'd ever get my head around has been really interesting, although I now have a huge pile of library books to return that I had held onto 'just in case I needed to use them again'.
To mark the one year of my blogging journey, even though my actual blog's birthday isn't until September , I thought I would reflect on the same title but from a different perspective: university. Certainly since I started my bachelor degree in 2010 there has been a massive shift in autism discourse and a huge increase in discussion and student led advocacy. The autism 'scape in 2010 was very different to that of today: the outreach today I believe has a bigger audience, the topic has become a bit more 'mainstream' thanks to campaigns by NAS and the like (whether we agree with them or not, as not all do exactly) and policy like the Autism Strategy (2010) and Act (2009) - the most recent, Think Autism, being in 2014. There is a larger number of people speaking outside the autism community and social media has massively grown and enhanced support networks and opportunity to meet other autistic adults. Groups can provide a safe space away from the confusion of the rest of society and social beings where we may feel alien. Finally, I feel autism is also 'less taboo' then it was seven years ago. It's still a very complicated topic, but by making it less taboo making it seem less scary.
How do universities accept difference though? I've had a positive experience in 'feeling at home' at university and academia, however I know this is not the case for all, so I tread carefully here and examine theoretically one situation in which I feel have changed over the last 7 years.
At my home university, there has been a great movement towards increasing knowledge and acceptance in societies and student groups. I attended a small session at the student union leadership training on autism run by our student support department - I think this is a great step forwarding getting people geared up for different perceptions of life and differing thinking styles. The is so much focus and pressure at university to be sociable, outgoing, etc. It's almost as if, on the social scene, there is truly one size fits all. This is not helped by the level of fresher's week promotion that only promotes clubbing, alcohol and busy environments, not showing any other alternatives. Yes, this is businesses and student unions getting money, but not conducive to all personality types, thinking styles and perceptions of life. Although this promotion has not changed, and is very overwhelming, there are now more opportunities present and more people are getting clued up. This long term project is currently sowing the seeds to for future students, when socially we can become more accepting of difference.
Some of this new knowledge being shared needs to come from autistic individuals themselves, who can alongside their peers, carve out a new landscape. Don't get me wrong, there are many groups that will not be autism or introvert friendly. But those with a thirst for knowledge and an open mind will help pioneer change, and those are the people who I think will do great things in terms of integration.
So how can student run groups become more autism friendly? One good starter is a working knowledge beyond the click bait on social media. The best information will come direct from the source, in this case an autistic individual, but in a university environment student services are likely also to have many good resources. A second starter is the information available before going - on a website, Facebook page or student union page: photos of committee members, the room you meet in, a timetable of planned activities, a designated contact for new members. All this information, laid out in a clear manner, will benefit not only autistic individuals who may be interested in joining a club or society, but those who are also more cautious or nervous or reserved. Furthermore being aware of the environment and activities you present - in relation to sensory difficulties (think about lighting, noise, set up of the room) or the expectations of activities. When an expectation of an initiation or activity or not clear, it is likely to cause anxiety for many, including autistic individuals. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if our intentions and expectations during an activity were perfectly clear?
Many of these suggestions are very small adjustments or long term general 'good practice' what benefit many, not just those who are autistic. As mentioned by one attendee at the end of my first workshop back in November, and that I repeat now after every workshop: autism friendly practice really is beneficial for everyone. Here is yet another example that is waiting.