'But you don't look autistic?'
It's time we actually talk about neurodivergence!
By Gregor Armstrong
But you don’t look Autistic? One of the world’s most unusual compliments. I mean I guess I’ll take the compliment – but it’s certainly quite an unusual one. Is not being autistic meant to be a good thing? It certainly sounds like it. Unfortunately, I have been given this compliment more times than I care to remember. I used to like the compliment as it proved that I ‘fit in’ to the rest of society, whatever that is supposed to mean. Fitting in can feel good - but it’s as much a blessing as it is a curse. This makes it difficult to ask for help, as everyone assumes that you can do everything that a neurotypical person can. Fitting in is good until you’re faced with a task that’s makes you feel like a square trying to be a triangle.
I am Gregor Armstrong; you might recognise me from the student officer elections. In that campaign, I made a point of putting disability issues at the forefront of my campaign. I knew at the time - just as I know now - that neurodivergence is not the most prominent issue on people’s minds. There are still so many students that have disabilities which impact their ability to study. It is that alone which makes it so important.
I have Autism and Dyspraxia. Autism is certainly much more well known to most people, whether that’s for its complex characteristics or as an alleged side effect of the vaccines. These factors have helped to catapult the idea of Neurodivergence into the public eye. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s really understood or accepted. Dyspraxia on the other hand is often forgotten about, mistaken as dyslexia - which it certainly is not. Dyspraxia affects motor skills, which is essentially a medical way of grouping together a range of different things such as handwriting and playing sports. As a boy, my inability to play sports became a central part of my identity. It was an integral part in why I was excluded from many events - simply because I was never any good at football. I mean, if you can’t kick a ball off the ground at age 15 - its certainly embarrassing.
Fortunately, I am not the first person to talk about my experience of Neurodivergence and we have started to see serious improvements in how neurodivergent people are presented. TV has moved beyond the idea that we all act like Sheldon Cooper - someone people often use as an example of autistic traits, even though the character is never diagnosed with the condition - as people are now able to talk about their experiences properly. Daniel Radcliffe has spoken about his experiences with dyspraxia (why don’t I get to be involved in the work of a now disgraced author?) Maybe it’s my lack of acting talent, or the fact they started filming before I was born… We’ll never know. The BBC has recently produced a lot of content, which certainly goes a long way in breaking down previous misconceptions of what a neurodivergent person ought to be. Paddy McGuiness’ ‘Our Family and Autism’ program, explains the challenges he and his family have in helping to support their autistic children. However, Paddy doesn’t suggest his life is awful as may be initially expected, instead it explores his quest to further understand his children. Paddy shows - rather rightfully - that it is challenging to understand neurodivergence from an outside perspective. Which, I think is something we don’t acknowledge enough as a society. Acceptance and understanding are vastly different things, we need both for everyone to feel included within society. People often suggest that acceptance and understanding should be automatic, however these things can be very challenging for people - and we must understand this as well. Chris Packman, the environmentalist known for talking about a range of different flora and fauna, is autistic. He has talked about his experiences many times, but his most recent program called ‘Inside our Autistic Minds’, allows for many autistic people to express themselves openly - rather than just being a show about Chris Packman. The voices in the program are different with each person, in much the same way that autism is different for each person who has autism. Critically, Packman’s programmes get to the point of this article very well, in that it proves that you can ‘look autistic’ in many ways.
Do I look autistic to you yet?