Autistic Pride began in 2005 with a celebration by Aspies for Freedom. Since then every year June 18th is as a day to celebrate autistic identity. This day stands as an opportunity for autistic people worldwide to celebrate the endless variety and potential of people on the spectrum. The infinity symbol represents this: limitless possibilities. The day is usually marked by gatherings such as picnics and coffee mornings. Unfortunately due to worldwide disruptions caused by COVID19 such meetings in-person are not a possibility.
However, the Autistic Pride Alliance has not been deterred, hosting an online picnic on June 20th with contributions from across the UK, US and Ireland. The Irish contributions will be supplied by Joan McDonald’s group Autistic Paddies. This rapidly growing group provides a space for socializing and mutual support among the neurodivergent community, containing members of all ages. McDonald remarks that the group was set up to reflect the experience of Autistic-led events such as Autscape or Autistic Pride.
“I was only diagnosed five years ago but was interested in autism for far longer because I work in teaching. I really found my pride in attending Autscape and was inspired by this to set up an autistic-led group in Ireland with Autistic Paddies. I’d been to Autistic Pride in Hyde Park five years ago and continued to go for two years after that. I decided it was time for one in Ireland and we had one in Phoenix Park last year.”
Autistic Pride exists outside any specific organisation or charities focus and is entirely community led. McDonald remarks that despite fundraising and information campaigns happening in events such as World Autism Month in April often prioritises the voices of family members or medical professionals at the expense of the community. “The autistic voice is often sidelined or even left out. Sometimes April is even about curing autism. It certainly used to be, it’s changing now, but that can be quite insulting and derogatory towards autistic people.”
Autistic Pride by contrast is autistic-led and autistic-organised. As such differences in sensory-processing and access needs are considered more carefully. Mostly however, participants get to enjoy “the freedom and the comfort of being around people who accepted them as they were. I thought the event would be quiet. It wasn’t necessarily loud but people were very much out and proud. We told bystanders we were autistic and having a picnic.”
The value of Autistic Pride in the area of self-advocacy can’t be underestimated either. Many articles and explainers published today largely occupy themselves exploring the deficits associated with autism and suggested treatments. Very few take the time to allow autistic people to explain the spectrum on their own terms. “Pride is about showcasing all of us and all that we do. There are so many aspects to this broad spectrum. People who’ve gone through autism supports sometimes feel they’re defective and older autistic people may have a sense of shame. Autistic pride shows who and how we are, as we are. It’s also a more realistic picture of what autism is. It also more realistic view of autism; social-communication and repetitive behaviours, which is what we’re told autism means when we get diagnosed.”
Autistic people such as Peter Hand were quick to point out the power of community in events like Pride. Peter was diagnosed later in life but found interacting with other autistic people was a great source of self-understanding “I never knowingly got involved with other autistic people until Autistic Paddies. I had autistic nieces and nephews but that would’ve been it. I knew that I felt different, thought differently and processed things. When I got the diagnosis I was really relieved but a bit later I went into my shell and questioned myself a lot. In the last year I’ve become more accepting of my own autism. I’m still finding my way; I’ll probably be spending the rest of my life finding my way. But that’s okay now, I have a group. I’m open about being autistic but I have to be careful about who I’m open with.”
Joan agrees community can helpful in dispelling shame or embarrassment among autistic people “A lot of younger autistic people are still apologetic and consider themselves defective. Being part of a tribe makes you that bit braver. It certainly isn’t easy being autistic but within our own community we can understand each other and support each other through the difficult bits and also understand celebrate the good bits.”
Saturday’s event will cover over twelve hours of online content. From Q&As, to lectures by community members, to creative readings. Autistic Paddies will present at 4pm with a number of creative pieces by members of the community. Despite stereotypes about autistic people and STEM, there is a thriving community of autistic artists, musicians, actors, comedians and writers in Ireland.
Peter pointed out the value of art in self-soothing in autistic people “Music has always a part of who I am. Whether it’s listening to it or playing it. I’ve always had a guitar but I’ve never been to a listen. I’m self taught and know a few chords. I draw a little bit as well. I find it’s a good way for me to switch off; it’s a way of escape. If I come back from a hard day at work I’ll plug in the guitar and strum for a bit. I didn’t perform until the Autistic Paddies Eurovision when I noticed Joan was looking for songs and when I was walking home from work I started composing something in my head. In the end I played it for a group which I’d normally never do.”
Jody O’Neill, writer of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, feels this is an interest that should be supported from an early age. “The arts have been a huge part of my life, and I think they provide a welcoming home for many autistic people – whether they are formally diagnosed or not. I studied ballet for a long time and in retrospect, I think the rigour and routine of it gave me clarity and focus in an otherwise unpredictable world.”
“When I became a youth theatre member at the age of 15, I found myself in a group of people where you didn’t have to be ‘normal’ to belong. I think it was so important to realise at an early age that belonging was possible, albeit in a neurodivergent way. I believe youth theatre can be a lifeline for autistic teenagers. So many autistic people I know are incredibly creative and rely on the arts for sustenance – be that visual arts, film, theatre, literature or other art forms.”
While some autistic people may feel shy about performing in front of strangers, Peter pointed to the sense of safety and trust among other autistic people motivating him to give it a try. “Music has usually been just for me, I wouldn’t even play it in front of friends. I don’t think I would have challenged myself that way unless I felt comfortable and Autistic Paddies.”
Joan astutely points that the very nature of the spectrum may push people into this role by necessity “As autistic people, whether we know it or not, perform throughout their lives, so why not do it professionally!”
Speakers will feature from locations such as Nebraska, London, Liverpool, Aberdeen and New Jersey. McDonald points out the importance of autistic communities from abroad interacting with each other. “One of our speakers is Dr. Bastien Confais. He’s French and we’re trying to support him to start his own group like Autistic Paddies in France. Bastien and his friends are super-intelligent academic people, some of whom are doctors including Bastien himself. However, France approaches autism in a more medical way. Many autistic people may be denied social supports and school places in favour of psychiatric treatment.”
“When they see people in the UK and Ireland that can be very inspiring because they might not even know autistic people CAN be like that. So this event has the potential to empower a lot of people. That said, there is a cultural element at play. For example, in the UK autistic people on average are poorer than here in Ireland. The supports they receive in terms of disability are less. So I’ve observed that some Irish autistic people, including those on disability allowance were able to go to Autscape whereas in the UK some of them can’t afford to go. In the UK autistic people don’t have time to be creative or celebrate their autism because they’re more concerned about getting food or coal this winter. As result there’s the element of poverty, access to diagnosis and supports that needs to be tackled.”
It’s clear that while autistic people have more challenges to face, the growth of community is a very encouraging sign. For this day, the community can take a moment as Peter says “to can go and be yourself. If you don’t feel like socializing people just let you be, but there’s also the opportunity there. The bottom line is just being around people who understand you.”