I had a marvellous time recently at the Welsh Autism Conference run by ASDinfoWales. It was a carefully thought out day run for adult autistic people without additional learning difficulties.
Many of the speakers and people running workshops were autistic, and it was my pleasure to have been invited to run a couple of workshops on Creativity. The focus of the day was the health and wellbeing of autistic people – and that alone is a beautiful thing.
This wasn’t a day about Autism Awareness, or how to cope with your autistic children (though there is definitely a place for such days too), this was a day for the mostly autistic cohort to find practical ways to improve their own lives.
Three quarters of the tickets were earmarked for autistic people, and only professionals were charged for attending. The effort that went into the day was clear and funding had been garnered from a range of sponsors to whom I am incredibly grateful.
Is it possible to run a perfect day for people who may have conflicting needs? Of course not, it’s always a tricky balance, but this felt like a safe space. The first step in providing accommodations is people feeling like if they express an issue it will be listened to.
Which brings me to something I only really mentioned briefly in my workshop; mindfulness.
It is immensely fashionable to be mindful; to live in the now, to be aware, to connect with what is going on around you at all times.
I have often heard mixed reviews of mindfulness from my fellow autistic people. Some love it, some loathe it. It can feel like one more thing we don’t get the benefit from; one more difference between an Instagrammably perfect life, and the world feeling like a battle.
It may seem like being mindful is not an autistic skill, but the secret is that we actually have the opposite issue; many autistic people are mindful all the time. We are so connected to our senses that we struggle to block things out. We are perpetually caught on the crest of the wave of living in the now. The entire world is howling its nowness at us, so how can we be more aware of our environment?
The problem we have is not that we are not connected, it is that we may be too connected, and that on top of that we are expected to do everything else.
Picture the scene; you are sitting in a chair, you focus on your breathing for a while, and then let yourself notice all the small sounds – the traffic in the distance, a rumble of distant conversation, the wind in the leaves – then you let the feeling of the chair against your skin take your attention, your feet on the floor, the fabric against the nape of your neck, your hair on your ear; you notice a cool draught raise the hairs on your arms, the light of the evening sun turning the walls a gentle pink; you can feel the vibrations of the building as you reach out further. You breathe deeply, enjoying that complete connection to everything and feeling all peaceful and serene, and possibly a teeny bit smug too (I’m not judging, I’m a shamelessly smug mindfulnesser).
Now hold on to that moment forever. Feel all the things, hear all the sounds, hear some of them as painful screeches like fingernails on a blackboard or squeaking balloons (whatever makes you shudder), feel that hair on your ear as a constant tug, notice all the pressure, all the light, have some lights shine in your eyes like throbbing sunlight, though no one else seems bothered by them.
Be utterly mindful and in the moment, and at the same time, get on with the day-to-day admin of life. Whatever you do, don’t get distracted by holding all those things in your mind as well.
Many autistic people have sensory differences and struggle to block out the background onslaught that everyone else seems to manage so effortlessly. We have busy minds, like under-stimulated toddlers, they drag us to look at every tiny thing. There is joy in this, but there is also exhaustion and there can be pain.
I had never noticed how much I struggle with sound after a long day, until I got noise cancelling headphones and they magically lifted the headache from my eyes.
Personally I like mindfulness, but not in quite the way that the majority do. I am mindful all the time, but sometimes it really helps me to stop trying my hardest to block everything out. Sometimes giving my mind a rest means saying to it, “Okay, go for it. I’m not going to force you to squash and ignore all these things; notice them, take your time. Focus on just the sensory and I’m not going to ask you to do other things as well whilst you do.”
I didn’t need to explain all this to the autistic people in my audience. They got it. They understood. Running that workshop on Creativity certainly did good things for my own health and well-being. So often the majority of my audience when I speak has little-to-no knowledge of autism. Speaking to an audience where the assumption is that they are autistic, and sharing experiences with those who understand from the inside, is marvellous; a real audience of my peers.
Autistic adults without high support needs are often overlooked when it comes to their health and well-being, it is often the case that there is no support at all unless in crisis. I can completely understand that those with higher needs will always need to be prioritised when funding is low, but events like these can make a real difference.
It always strikes me as an obvious fact that the healthier and happier people are, the cheaper they are, as the less likely they are to develop mental health issues and the more likely they are to be able to cope when difficulties arise.
I’m not saying one event changes things, but this was the sort of day that makes people feel noticed and gives us the tools to help ourselves. It took vision and determination, but most of all, it took listening to autistic people and responding to their needs. More of the same please!