‘Don’t assume I can’t do it!’ – Neurodiversity and competence

I was at an event earlier in the year for which i was the keynote speaker. The MC introduced with the following: “And now Jeanette is going to give her little talk…” I was affronted. That little word ‘little’ carried with it paternalism and a good whiff of tokenism. I got the feeling the organisation wanted an Autistic speaker just so they could say they did. Maybe my diagnosis was more of a draw card than my actual presentation. I was so annoyed that I was determined to give as good a talk as I could. Needless to say I absolutely knocked it out of the park and the conference delegates all told me how wonderful my talk was. (‘Bring it on ableist MC boy!’ I thought to myself).

Sadly this experience is all too common. In my situation it didn’t have a lot of implications for me other than to irritate me. But what happens if you take that attitude into the workplace, a job interview, into an interview for a university course, into a family court dispute. That attitude of ‘Autism = incompetence’ is everywhere and it is very unhelpful.

The attitude around incompetence I often get is the ‘Autistic people are like children’ one. I wear a number of different ‘hats’ and the metaphorical hats actually come with a costume attached. There is business corporate person Jeanette – suited and booted, tasteful jewellery and an invisible – but very necessary – cloak of confidence. Then there is casual Jeanette – art t-shirt, comfy jeans and quirky shoes. Finally there is Autism world public profile Jeanette – which is my favourite costume. Public profile Autism world me likes to wear lots of rainbow, art t-shirts with a neurodiversity theme, bright jewellery, floral everything and toped off with one of four coloured wigs. When I am corporate business me I get lots of respect and equality from other corporate people. The negative with that one is that poorer people can find it off-putting or intimidating which is never my intent. When I am wearing either my casual or Autism world ‘look’, I get the ‘are your parents here with you?’ attitude. Apparently looking stereotypically different magically takes away all the competence I have in an instant and it somehow returns once I don my suit. Who knew!

This instant judgment of Autistics is really unhelpful. Not only can it close doors to us, it can also impact on our sense of self-worth and confidence. When I was a teenager, all the kids picked on me because I seemed ‘different.’ I was never told anything positive about my difference so I associated my difference with being a lesser human being. I wanted to address this so tried to be less like my true (and apparently ‘weird’) self. This led to years of self-hatred and joining any group which would have me (criminals, socialists, drugs addicts – that sort of thing). My involvement with these groups who would accept me led to some terrible choices and a dangerous, aggressive, defeated life.

Autistic people are NOT incompetent but the almost universal assumption that there we are has the dual disadvantage of making us feel inadequate just to be ourselves and also for other people to discriminate against us or patronise us.

Neurodiversity is a good concept because it drives directly into that space of incompetence and flips it on its head. We are beautiful, unique Autistic humans. That is a powerful and valuable statement right there.

I think that changing assumptions around incompetence is a fundamental necessity to achieve a world respectful of difference and respectful of neurodiversity. And I think we are right near the start of this change. It is one thing to put forward Einstein or Mozart or Alan Turing as Autistic role models, or more recently Susan Boyle or Dan Ackroyd, but I want a world where this is unnecessary. I want a world where we do not need to say ‘oh, but Autistic people can be really good at our jobs’ because everyone knows this already.

The assumption of incompetence goes to the heart of ableism. In fact people with other differences and disability face their own assumption of incompetence. Let us not judge an entire demographic group by a stereotype. Once Autistic people aren’t burdened with this assumption – and all that comes with it – we can rally make some positive change.

You know what I said when that conference MC said I was giving my ‘little’ talk? I got up on stage and looked at the audience and said ‘I am Jeanette Purkis. I am a proud Autistic woman…’ and went from there. When others value us as we are – metaphorical sparkly shoes and rainbow wigs notwithstanding  – and when we can also love and value ourselves without the need pretend to be neurotypical so that we aren’t discriminated against…. When those things are our reality I shall happily retire from my advocacy because it will no longer be needed. I long for that day when our competence through difference is respected and understood.


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