Autism friendly? The disappointing truth
The autism friendly tag is a big thing where I live. Clonakilty, deep in South of the Irish Republic, is well known for its black pudding, local whiskey, and for being Ireland's first autism friendly town.
A laudable achievement, that last... except from where I'm sitting, it frankly seems like bullshit. At best people seem to pay lip-service to the idea; and at worst, they make no effort at all.
Worse: I have no idea who's been dishing out advice about what is and is not going to make life easier for us autistics as we grind our way through stores and everyday bustle of town, but it seems to me like they've gone down the route of having a bunch of well-meaning but clueless neurotypicals arbitrarily decide on our behalf.
Here's a concrete example for you.
Tuesday evening before last I ventured out to our local "autism friendly" SuperValu simply because of their big, bold promise of dim lights and quiet checkouts.
The reality when I arrived?
Bright lights, tills bleeping at full volume, and the tannoy screeching crap Christmas music and announcements.
In other words, their claim to "autism friendly" shopping on a Tuesday evening was nonsense. I asked the lad on the checkout about what was going on as I left and he had no idea about it. He did offer to ask someone for me, but by then it was a tad late.
Now, unlike many autistics, I'm not one to demand others change how they do things to fit in with my differences.
They can run their lights, tannoy, and tills exactly as they please.
Their shop, their rules.
But there was no indication the Tuesday night autism friendly shopping had been cancelled or postponed, and no apology or reason given.
They simply didn't bother.
And there's a word for people who promise to do something to appear "woke" and then do another with no warning, explanation, or apology, and it applies here.
Thing is, this kind of behaviour is common — virtue signalling to attract business and to appear socially woke, but delivering nothing of substance to back up your promises.
But let me start at the beginning, almost two years ago now when I did the almost unthinkable...
I enrolled in a local autism friendly gym
The short story is my shoulder- and hip-mobility is shot to hell and I needed to do a fair amount of rehab on a few niggling injuries.
And the gym, like so many local businesses, advertised its autism friendly status prominently on the front window.
But it was nothing of the sort.
To be fair, the bloke in charge did say they'd to their best to keep noise and bright lights to a minimum when I was in the building, and I was grateful for that (they also had some kind of "autism activity box" which contained — and I shit you not — a sun-visor, a car freshener, and a couple of stress balls. I can but imagine these "activity boxes" are the brainchild of some neurotypical who once read something somewhere about autism and sensory... err... stuff. I'll come back to this).
Anyway... despite his fine words and promises, like so many neurotypicals, he was merely paying lip-service to the whole autism friendly idea.
Look, you know what "mansplaining" is, right?
Where men condescendingly lecture women as if they're too emotional and illogical to understand?
Well, not only is there the equivalent and opposite coming from the other side of the gender-divide, but there's also what I call "neurosplaining".
It's where neurotypicals presume to tell me and other autistics how our own experience of autism and how it affects us is inaccurate, misguided, or just plain wrong.
The smoking gun is when they trot out ignorant shit like "it's just a label", and other infuriating nonsense.
Well... this guy was Mr Neurosplainer from Neurosplaining City, Arizona.
He wasn't just uninformed and ignorant about autism and what it means to be autistic, but he obstinately refused to listen, telling me, in effect, my experience was wrong and I could and should "power through it" if I had the "right mindset".
Let's be clear: we're not talking about the perfectly-acceptable clichéd practice of shouting and yelling at me to improve my effort and performance. I'd have had no problem with that at all.
No, I'm talking about summarily dismissing and effectively denying anything I said about my sensory experience of the gym and how it was affecting the work we were trying to do.
At one point I told him his yelled instructions coupled with the lights, noise, and physical coordination required to jump and catch a bar were confusing, and his genius answer was "Then just don't be confused!". This is akin to telling a blind person "Just try to see harder!".
I got back home after that session and sent him a long and detailed email about my frustrations and how his claim to want to run an autism friendly gym wasn't borne out by his actions.
His response was to suggest we "talk face to face", even though I'd already told him email was a better way to do this for me. That, itself, should have been a massive red-flag because it's indicative of how uninterested he is in being autism friendly to anyone in any way whatsoever.
Still, I acquiesced and went down there the next day.
Within five minutes it was clear he'd not read the email at all and went back to spewing his usual bigoted neurotypical bullshit.
So I walked out and never went back (and my heart bleeds knowing what the pandemic has done to his business. Maybe he's "powering through it" with the "right mindset", or something).
So, what do these two stories have to do with each other?
Simple: they both show the local autism friendly initiative up for the joke it is.
As I alluded to above, it seems to me autistic people have barely been asked or consulted about any of it — and if they have, then it looks like what they've said has been filtered, interpreted, and ultimately twisted by some committee's neurotypical view of the world.
Unless you're a professional I almost certainly know more about autism than you do.
Unless you're autistic I absolutely know more about living as an autistic than you do, even if you have autistic friends, family, or colleagues.
... to anyone who's serious about helping autistics through any kind of autism friendly initiative, engage your brain before opening mouth, typing on keyboard, or concocting dumb autism friendly boxes, ideas, or environments.
For the Love of All That's Holy, ask us.
I can't speak for others, but feel free to ask me anything you like about what this autistic wants and needs with the single proviso you'll listen to my answer and not try to cast it in the mould of your own neurotypical bias and perception.
The irony in all this?
A classic autistic trait is to take and deliver words literally.
You ask us what we want.
We tell you clearly and unambiguously.
And still you don't listen.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate