Thomas Kingston discusses his personal experiences with Autism and societal attitudes.
Whilst Boris bluffed his way through the COVID pandemic, there were calls for "no return to normal” after the worst was over. But what does normal mean, exactly?
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the word ‘normal,’ encountering it when mention that I’m Autistic with the recurring response being, “but you seem normal to me.” Whilst meant as a compliment, it has the barbs of an insult, I mean, am I abnormal and somehow flawed because I’m Autistic? Was I covering up some form of giveaway marking, or was I meant to present as Rainman?
Notions of normal have been shattered by the pandemic, with disability campaigners vindicated by the change in situation and attitudes. Entering the workplace, as an Autistic person, is a daunting task with barriers such as flexible working practices and requests for accommodations deemed unrealistic contributing to the shocking statistic that just 16% of Autistic adults are in full-time employment. The pandemic has proven these obstacles to be paper tigers, as the possibility of working from home now appears to be practical, leading to some firms adopting this permanently. On the other hand, WFH has demonstrated how detrimental isolation and a break in routines are, with a rise in mental health issues already apparent. Yet, this is often the ‘norm’ for Autistic people who, due to the hurdles around entering the workforce, are regularly left feeling isolated, no doubt contributing to the almost threefold likelihood of an Autistic person suffering from anxiety.
Whilst it’s dangerous to argue that worth is based on productivity, the fact is that many Autistic people can and want to contribute, affirming a lesson that many people have recently learnt that independence is integral to wellness. As averse as I am to reducing this to economic terms, the reality is that Autistic people’s support costs are significant, with the £32 billion price tag making it almost three times as expensive as Cancer and four times as heart disease. Yet studies demonstrate that supported employment offers a cost reduction compared to care. Beyond economics, there’s a simple argument that employing Autistic people is better for society, as without their input the world remains an exclusionary one that isn’t designed with their needs in mind.
In turn, we miss out on a richness of experiences and perspectives, with numerous Autistic ‘traits’ proving useful in professional settings and increasing the diversity of opinion and input. I’m lucky to have received my diagnosis in my teens meaning that, despite struggles in school and college, I’ve since been able to receive suitable accommodations enabling me to earn two masters degrees from world leading universities and to start thinking about a doctorate. (That’s not to say I haven’t encountered my share of ignorance, even from well-meaning sources, such as one internship offering me two weeks of sticking stamps on envelopes because the employer had heard Autistic people liked repetitive tasks). However, many aren’t so lucky, with women and BAME individuals far less likely to receive a diagnosis in the first place, leading to a lack of awareness of their needs, something not helped by the serious cuts to the NHS. Other examples of the dire situation include a waiting list of up to two years for a diagnosis, as well as one in three people diagnosed with Autism as adults contemplating suicide and the equally shocking reduced life expectancy, of up to 16 years.
Faced with prospects that have often seemed inauspicious, I’ve learnt to try and seek positives amidst negatives. And so, with increased awareness of mental strains due to isolation, the possibility of more flexible working practices and the national realisation of the importance of the NHS, offer us a chance to rebuild, renew and commit to the new prospect of more inclusive society, a new ‘normal’ if you will. The Labour Party with it’s unique structure of accepting input from socialist societies, such as Disability Labour, stands well placed to develop this, especially if the latter’s slogan of “nothing about us without us” is at the heart of this process. So no, let’s not return to the old ‘normal’, as many of us were never included in that ‘normal’ to begin with.
Thomas Kingston is originally from the North East of England but has spent the last few years in Beijing, Phnom Penh and London. Past roles include working in human rights law in Cambodia and autism advocacy in the UK. He holds an LLB (Hons) in Law, an MA in Pacific Asian Studies from SOAS and an MPhil in Philosophy from the Renmin University of China.
He tweets at @thomasekingston.