Pádraig Mac Oscair is a writer and activist from Donegal currently based in Dublin. His writing (in English and Irish) can also be read in Rupture, Socialist Voice and Mionlach. This text is based on a talk he recently gave as part of a Human Library event in Leabharlann Poiblí Gaoth Dobhair as part of the Earagail Arts Festival.
What unites the activist Greta Thunberg, the footballer James McClean and the actor Anthony Hopkins? Not much at first glance.
The answer is that they’re all autistic.
Who are the people who come to mind when you hear the term “autism spectrum disorder? For years, it was the “savant” stereotype along the lines of Rain Man or child prodigies who finished university at 17. Nowadays, terminology such as “On the spectrum” is used to describe people who’re seen as a bit different. People don’t generally have any evidence when they say this – it’s almost become a way of describing someone’s personality along the same lines as “funny” or “bold”.
It’s easy to say that this is “mostly harmless”. However, there is a dangerous and complex side to stereotyping autistic people. This is especially clear with regards to the Irish language, as negative stereotypes that autistic people are unable to learn Irish have persisted. As a result of these stereotypes, the parents of autistic children have been encouraged to seek exemptions from the study of Irish for their children. They have even been encouraged to exclusively speak English to their children, even in Gaeltacht areas.
This tells us something interesting about the similarities between the attitude held by the majority towards both minority languages and autism. Just as the use of the Irish language is relegated to a marginal place in Ireland’s social, economic and cultural life by a largely Anglophone society and often dismissed as “irrelevant” and “pointless”, so too are autistic people often dismissed as unable to function within society, or worse yet, largely ignored.
But both of these attitudes are misinformed and outdated. In the case of autism, medical knowledge is constantly changing and improving – and with it, our understanding of what autism is and who autistic people are has developed beyond recognition in recent years. For instance, Anthony Hopkins wasn’t diagnosed until 2014 at the age of 77 and James McClean was diagnosed at age 34 following his own daughter’s diagnosis.
Examples like that of McClean show just how misinformed stereotypes are – it would be hard to imagine someone less likely to be stereotyped as autistic than a Premier League footballer of several years standing.
McClean’s case also shows just how quickly our knowledge of autism has changed. McClean is only two years older than myself, and I was diagnosed at age 6. Even the vocabulary used to discuss autism is changing constantly – we have to remember that the widely used term “Asperger’s Syndrome” only appeared in medical dictionaries in 1994, and “neurodiversity” didn’t appear until 1999. There’s a saying in relation to the sciences – when a member of the general public hears about a new discovery, it’s already three years out of date amongst experts. The same could be said about autism, meaning we have to move towards a broader and more inclusive understanding of disability in general.
These changes have begun, with a generation of autistic people raised in the 1990s and later coming of age and growing in confidence. A range of public figures have emerged in Ireland, such as the comedian Ian Lynam, the novelist Naoise Dolan and the rapper Craic Boi Mental have placed their autism in a central place within their work and spoken openly about going against stereotypes and making autistic people visible in the public sphere. This has culminated in the launch of the Neuropride festival, in which a wide variety of events are held to challenge people’s pre-existing ideas and to better inform them as to just how wide-ranging and eclectic the idea of an “autistic person” actually is.
Visibility is particularly important, just as it is for any minority – just consider the significance of “out” LGBTQ+ musicians and actors to the community down the years. It’s particularly important for young autistic people to be able to see people who defy stereotypes and negative expectations. What has to be remembered is that, despite advances and changes in attitude in recent years, autistic people still endure major difficulties in education, employment and mental health. One study published by the University of Nottingham in 2017 indicated that 30% of autistic people in Britain had attempted suicide at some point in their life, and other surveys indicate disproportionately high rates of unemployment or underemployment amongst autistic people.
I myself was terrified to speak or write about the subject for years, despite knowing myself as someone who did all their primary and secondary education in Irish, and grew up to use the language every day, that the idea of autistic people being at any inherent disadvantage with the language to be nonsense. I felt deeply uncomfortable and worried that it would have a negative effect on what people thought of me. It just wasn’t something I read or heard much about growing up. As I grew older, I heard terms such as “on the spectrum” used to describe people who were seen as a bit strange (sometimes not kindly), and kept quiet. However, I was emboldened in recent years after seeing people speak in public about their own experiences and placing it in a central position in creative and musical projects – it’s no exaggeration to say it was an empowering process and that it no longer felt like something to be ashamed of. This experience has clearly been shared by many other autistic people in recent years, leading to the increased willingness to challenge stereotypes and reclaim the narrative towards one based on championing a more inclusive idea of neurodiversity, rather than fighting the exclusion inherent in being labelled “disabled”.
The similarities between this and the case of the Irish language, which has been handicapped by negative stereotyping and perceptions for decades, are clear to see. The same attitude towards autistic people which has seen the parents of autistic children encouraged to seek exemptions from the study of Irish or to exclusively speak English to them is at play when the Irish language is placed in a secondary position to English by Anglophone society, and its “usefulness” questioned. Irish speakers have defied stereotypes and criticism to sustain the language for decades through successes such as the Gaelscoil movement and the establishment of urban Gaeltacht communities in Belfast. The survival of any minority language is based on the courage and confidence of its speakers to defy the dominance of the majority language, whether it be to start schools at great disadvantage or to persist in using the language in the community despite the dismissal or outright hostility it may incur. Doing so requires empowerment and visibility, alongside a willingness to disprove prejudices and stereotypes by challenging widely received ideas and being visible amongst the wider public.
What ultimately links the recognition of neurodiversity and minority languages is the challenge which their recognition poses for the majority. A change of attitude is needed to allow for a more inclusive understanding more willing to accept diversity and difference in neurological and linguistic terms to better enable those involved to thrive, rather than merely survive.