Interview with Dr Wenn Lawson, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, 2015

Star Wenn chest 018Psychologist, author and autistic, Dr Lawson is passionate about the rights of those who often cannot speak for themselves. He is a parent of four children (one of whom is autistic) and grandparent of two girls, also autistic.

Hello Wenn. As you know, I really like your work, in particular ‘Concepts of Normality’ (2008). I was struck by a number of comments and points made in the book. One of these was that ‘…normal is not inclusive of difference’ (p. 30). Could you expand on what you mean by that?

Yes, I can expand. The complete quoted sentence says: “normal is not inclusive of difference and in its most rigid form perpetuates modes of behaviour that prevent the healthy development of positive self-esteem and ability in a varied and wide population of individuals”- this implies the concept of ‘normal’ as perceived by the majority, is only applicable to the very narrow understanding and experience of ‘sameness’, and not for the wider and varied population. So, ‘if you are like me, you are normal’ or ‘Western traditions are the civilised one; those that are echoed by Westerners’. Therefore, if you don’t fit this rigid narrow paradigm of ‘like me’ you are different and ‘not normal’, or ‘normal is not inclusive of difference’. In actuality, it’s normal to be different!

If we can help youngsters accept their differences, rather than try to be constantly ‘fitting in’ we give them a better chance of developing a healthy sense of self. Who says that girls should be a size 8-10, love clothes and make-up, be good at socialising and enjoy painting their nails? What about all the girls who are a size 12-20+; don’t particularly like ‘girls fashion clothing’, are not great socialites, don’t like make-up and don’t paint their nails? Which group is normal? Is it normal for boys to enjoy the domestic life, rather than time with computer games? Jamie Oliver seems to be doing OK? In reality, normal is a much broader concept than it’s credited for.        

In the same book, you also wrote that ‘language is considered the traditional normal currency of communication. Therefore, if you don’t use language as your communication tool, you may be considered disabled, disordered or dysfunctional.’ (p. 74). Do you think that in the intervening years, there has been any improvement in this mind set?

I think it depends upon where you live, what resources are available to you, the space you live and relate in, whether or not you are accepted as a non-talker and what measures of people, technical and personal support you have etc. Basically, yes, we have improved in our mind set towards non-verbal communication, but not nearly enough. Language is still seen as ‘enabling, accompanying intelligence, the main way to communicate’ and so on. If you don’t ‘speak’ verbally you are still thought of as ‘less than.’ This MUST change!   There are many paths that lead to communication, being able to use your voice in spoken communication is just one path. There are many individuals who can speak fluently but who are poor communicators. They are not one and the same. We must get better at facilitating communication in whatever appropriate ways an individual needs. We must not hide from this nor cover up, apologise or put non-speakers down as having communication issues. They have spoken language issues but may be amazing communicators!

In another important book, ‘The Passionate Mind’ (2011), you develop the theory of Single Attention and Associated Cognition in Autism (SAACA) and in particular emphasise the different learning style/s which can be associated with autism. Why did you think it was important to write about this?

I believe it’s important to write about this because if ASC learning styles are not appreciated then ‘they’ try to teach us as if we learn typically, which we don’t. If the wrong ways to educate us are employed and these fail, it ends up that we feel like failures but, really, the system has failed us. Once people understand that we are single minded by default and accept this as a route to education, then they see us learning and growing. This is rewarding for both populations (teachers and ASC learners).

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Wenn with speakers and members of the ACER team at one of the regular residential weekends for post-graduate students.

I was very interested in some of your comments on your blog about school and socialisation. For example, you wrote:

‘My father once said to me “make friends Wendy”. I knew how to make a rice pudding, I even knew how to make my dog sit, but I had no idea how to make friends.’ Do you think it is important that schools help autistic children learn how to make friends?

 Yes, I do believe this is important but, they also need to teach typical children how to befriend an ASC person. It takes two! Appreciating that we learn differently in ASC is vital so, we need to help typical children learn this too. Then we can learn together as a team that appreciates and incorporates ‘difference’ into our learning and living. One of the things re: friendships is, in ASC we find it difficult to organise our thinking and convert this to planning. So, for example, knowing when to chat and when it’s someone else’s turn. This is because a) we find it difficult to shift attention from one topic to another (self to other) and b) we often have poor executive functioning skills. It’s great if those relating to us can appreciate our difficulties in these areas and support us by telling us what they need from us, rather than expecting us to know or be able to work it out..

You have been writing poetry for quite some time now. What is it about this activity that you particularly enjoy?

Poetry? Is a form of writing, recording, putting down one’s thoughts and so on in a structured way that saves the day! I love how it brings knowledge and understanding together… no-matter where or whatever the weather.

It helps me find,

The way my mind,

Holds information best.

Once I get to say,

The rhyme comes to play,

and then comes all the rest.

It seems for me, this is just a tool.

Whilst others chat coherently, I fumble like a fool.

When in its place,

I make a mess,

words that rhyme help get me through.  

sqease Jane Tony plus 038

Wenn in his squease: “I find it useful pressure for calming or creating a barrier between myself and interruptions.”

Today is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) 2015. If you could choose one thing you would like the world to be aware of in the context of autism, what would it be?

I was really impressed with a couple of conference themes recently. One said: Accept difference, not indifference. The other said: Human / Being on the spectrum. I think the messages from both are profound. I also think the World needs to understand that being autistic is different to being typical, but not different to being human. As a human being we have talents, strengths and interests that can be the foundation for a positive self-worth. Most of us, as human beings, are all too aware of the things we are not good at. Rather than having these constantly pointed out to us, it could make such a difference having our strengths/interests utilised as pathways to learning and building a positive self-worth.

Many thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Wenn.

You’re Welcome J

References:

Lawson, W. (2008) Concepts of Normality (The Autistic and Typical Spectrum). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Lawson, W. (2011) The passionate mind: how people with autism learn. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Interview by Becky Wood.

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