The Many and Varied Perks of Autistic Special Interests

A recent study by Rachel Grove et al, presented earlier this year at INSAR, found a link between autistic “special interests” (no, I don’t love that phrase either, but it’s the accepted term for what the standard “interest” just can’t capture) and higher subjective well-being amongst autistic adults. The above graph (photo credit @YesWeJon) shows the huge range of special interests found in this project alone, and despite the stereotypes, it’s so much broader than just maths and trains. (Although, more on trains later…)

For autistic people, this won’t come as a surprise. This week, I’ve been reading Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism (edited by Barb Cook and Dr. Michelle Garnett), a collection by and (primarily) for autistic women dealing with all the highs and lows of life on the spectrum. It covers a LOT – and when so much is focused on children, it’s incredibly eye-opening to read about topics like ageing and parenting – but I particularly related to Christine Jenkins and Renata Jurkévythz’s chapter on intense interests. Apparently, it’s more common for autistic women to have several of these at the same time, and the pair outline the different roles and functions that their all-consuming passions  – gaming, animals, music – have played in their lives. And the evening after I read about their interests, I had reason to think about the different roles of my own…

“Sim-u-la-tion The-o-ry…”

I slowly said the words out loud, knowing I’d soon get very acquainted with them. I was waiting for my train, a normal Thursday evening, except for the tiny matter of Muse announcing their new album details. Sorry, did I say tiny? I meant “the most exciting news in the entire world ever”. New song The Dark Side was also released with the pre-order and I, as ever, had to Know It Immediately. Admittedly, “knowing it immediately” was easier when I was 14 in my bedroom with MSN and Radio 1 than it is when I’m 24 and trying to navigate station wi-fi, but there I was, watching the same video twice, holding my earphones in, trying not to bounce around too much in the middle of St Pancras. I knew I’d be spending tomorrow telling my MP3 player to skip back every few minutes.

This is special interest logic. This is (one form of) sheer autistic delight. When it feels like everything else is changing, this is a constant, something I still have in common with that awkward teen sulking to Muscle Museum after another long day of Year 9, and that’s reassuring. Besides, it’s nice to know I  can at least handle change better than most major comments sections!

If I’ve got Muse on shuffle, things are either very good (probably because I’ve got Muse on shuffle), or very bad (or at least they were until I put Muse on shuffle). At this point, they’re familiar enough to be a sort of musical comfort blanket and exciting enough to be a distraction from whatever else is going on. Sometimes, that’s the difference between a meltdown and, well, not a meltdown.

“All of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will… Where do you want to start?”

It’s been over two years since I left Oxford, and I still constantly go on about Oxford Doctor Who Society.

Doctor Who also became a special interest in my school years, but it was at university that it really came into its own as a social tool – when I lived in college, “What did you think of the new episode?” was practically a standard conversation opener. Then there was WhoSoc – what they don’t tell you about infodumping is that some people genuinely want to listen and will even respond with a bigger and better infodump of their own. I generally enjoyed the structured nature of student societies, and WhoSoc’s “we’ll start by watching Doctor Who, then there’s the option of more general chat that can bounce off what we’ve just seen” helped forge friendships that continue today, albeit with the help of social media. If standard conversation doesn’t feel like an option, perhaps because I’ve got overloaded or because all small talk is hitting the giant weather panic button, liveblogging a Doctor Who episode for friends is a “safe” (and fun!) way to socialise.

Something those friends are probably tired of hearing me say at this point is “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place”. Essentially, this is shorthand for “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, I’m more excited about it than I can describe, and it must be true that everything will be okay and the world will keep turning because we need to get to autumn when her first series starts”. Again, I find myself handling change better than most major comments sections, and to have our first female Doctor is massive – when the time comes for the fourteenth Doctor I’ll actually enjoy all the speculation without getting dragged down by the same old tired arguments, and just imagine the children (of any gender) growing up with this as the norm for once… It’s basically just an instant feel-good button, which is handy to have!

“Hornchurch. Ickenham. Hainault…”

This is Jay Foreman’s Every Tube Station Song, and if you’ve managed to escape me showing you this already, you should watch it now. Go on. I’ll wait.

Surely at least part of you wants to memorise it too?

Until I happened to click this recommendation on my YouTube sidebar last year, I’d never really been interested in trains, but before long I felt slightly guilty for becoming the stereotype. Cue a document of Tube stations I’d been to, a spring discovering Geoff Marshall’s YouTube channel and a summer glued to All The Stations, accidentally spending ages researching the history and the details, Tube-map-themed-everything… Oops, I accidentally stumbled across a special interest.

The London Underground interest could perhaps be considered my most “productive”, because it means I can commute to work in London. On paper, the Tube isn’t exactly a great fit for me – the heat, the noise, the heat, the crowds, the heat – but I’m not exactly the only autistic person to really like trains, and the little strategies I and others pick up almost unthinkingly has become an interest in itself. (Writing this guide for autistic first-time Tube users was my idea of a fun post-dissertation project!)

That said, my current commute gives me the choice of Tube or Thameslink, and when the heatwave hit (more on that here), I avoided the Underground entirely. This was sensible, but it was also the first time I’d ever “fallen out” with a special interest, and with all things Tube-related giving me a twinge of anxiety rather than excitement, I was worried it wouldn’t return. It was some time after I thought the “danger” had gone before I went back – one stop as I briefly passed through London. Then a diverted morning commute taking the air-conditioned S-Stock lines to Moorgate and changing to the Northern line from there (the Moorgate Manoeuvre, my All-The-Stations-addled brain called it), then a full morning commute, then the same process for evenings, until I eventually completed an uneventful Northern line evening commute, about 8 weeks after my previous one. The switch had flipped back – it’s the Thameslink route that’s the risky novelty again now! – and my main motivation for it was missing that absolute joy that was still somewhere in those tunnels.

Sometimes, autistic special interests form careers. Sometimes, they help build key skills in other areas. Sometimes, they don’t, and that’s okay too – neurotypical people can have fun hobbies without always being “productive”, and so can we! For me, special interests are a major perk of being autistic – each one is a little bit different, and even if one is a little less active for the moment, before long it comes back around with a bang. Much like Muse’s album cycles, thinking about it…


Mountains, Molehills, and The Actual End Of Days

(Full disclosure: I work for Autistica, and this blog post clearly drew inspiration from the Molehill Mountain app which I’ll talk about later, but all views here are completely my own)

It’s been a week. Outside, I saw the grass was all brown; it’s dying, already. The newsreader on the radio described a wildfire on the moors, before moving on to the many smaller things – hosepipe bans, lettuce shortages, buckling railways. Now I’m reading a Twitter thread, scrolling on as someone explains to a presumed US audience (IN GREAT DETAIL) why the current UK heatwave is Very Serious Actually, because we’re not used to it, and we’re not prepared for it, and it will affect water supply and power supply and crops – this isn’t normal, and with climate change, it’s only going to get worse. I check the weather forecast online – it runs for 14 days, yet it doesn’t show signs of ending… What if it doesn’t end? What if it ends, but too late? What if this year seems like a blip but next year is the one where it all goes wrong? When you think about it, this is a perfectly plausible apocalypse…

I know that for me, heat can be a big factor in sensory overload and the like. I know that in summer this will inevitably sometimes have a knock-on effect on my mood. But the end of the world?! That was a new one.

Mind you, a brain like mine that relies on routine and sameness might be forgiven for thinking that the change in seasons is, in fact, The Actual End Of Days. Heatwaves get everywhere – into your homes and your schools and your workplaces, into the everyday decisions of what to wear and what to eat and how to plan your day, even into almost every interaction with another person (especially if that person is me, to be honest). Little things don’t feel quite normal: my usual blazer is gone, my hair is up in a ponytail even when I’m “being a grown-up” and going to work, and the Underground – a recent special interest – is suddenly out of bounds. Things I would otherwise look forward to, that I logically still look forward to, turn into yet another logistical nightmare to worry about. The weather is always the “headline news” of the day, even when it shouldn’t be.

You could argue that it’s a special interest gone wrong – the same mechanism that finds joy in the minute details, but now finding danger. Before long, anything you can think of is mentally filed under “safe” or, like a spontaneous cup of tea or a quick trip out of the office for lunch, “risky” – even as I think to myself “wait, that doesn’t even make any sense”.

To an extent, all those rules and worries can be managed into a routine of their own – but that isn’t they take up a lot of bandwidth, and when it’s as relentless as it has been, it’s easy to feel more than a little defeated. And it’s only going to get worse, and when I’m in London all the time that will be worse still, and my safe commute will change, and I’m going to have to do another sixty of- thanks brain, that’s quite enough!

What traditional advice (and, sadly, more formal mental health services) often forgets about autistic people is that many of our worries – sensory issues, changes to routine, the eventual meltdowns – can’t just be logic-ed away. (In this case, even the whole armageddon thing isn’t far off the mark…) Equally, sometimes we go too far the other way, assuming nothing can be done because it’s “just part of autism” even as it spirals well out of proportion to the autism-related issues. In short, just because there is a worry you need to consider doesn’t mean that ruminating on it incessantly is healthy or going to solve anything. One doesn’t erase the other. That’s how I interpreted the message behind Autistica’s new Molehill Mountain app which has been so prominent in my life this week – for us, these “molehills” ARE the mountain displayed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t chip away at it.

Telling them apart, though, is easier said than done. Autistic community wisdom is that if you just-push-through too much then it all crashes, but a big takeaway from the past few years is that I feel so much better when I’m busy and distracted – whether that’s at work, seeing friends, or just liveblogging Doctor Who episodes for the group chat – even though leaving the house might seem like the silliest idea in the world. Obviously, I don’t react well to people being dismissive, but weirdly it can be just as bad when other people are empathising, because of that part of me that think “See? This is real, and dangerous.” (It’s fair to say that this makes me a pretty useless communicator sometimes, and being prompted to send a regular daily message to someone you trust is something else I’m excited about from Molehill Mountain.)

Sometimes, the inseparable mix between my sensory overload (which I should listen to) and my near-obsessive worry spirals (which I shouldn’t) makes me feel like I’m “doing it wrong” on both counts. But you can’t do your own brain wrong, even when it’s different from neurotypical people or even other autistic people. And in any case, it never feels quite so huge in hindsight.

It’s been almost two and a half weeks since I last really, properly, felt like myself. But, as I get off the train this morning – on the all-important app launch day, a top-tier adulting challenge when I’ve felt like I’m maybe at half adulting capacity on a good day – the skies are grey. It’s cooler, and the change feels instant. Is this how much energy and enthusiasm I normally have? The mountain, conveniently enough, is suddenly a molehill again. Maybe it always was.

So I might be autistic. Now what?

In my mind, the target audience for “Are You Autistic?” was undiagnosed autistic adults, some of whom will never have even thought about it before, who recognised themselves in the journeys of JP and Jo (pictured above). I hoped that someone might watch the show, find it resonating with them more than they expected, and maybe I’d get one message or see one tweet saying “I think this might be me, what do I do now?” and then I’d feel like we’ve done our job – so you can only imagine how I feel about losing count of them! Anyway, if that’s you or someone you know, read on for some possible next steps…

“I might be autistic, but…”

“…I didn’t really get this bit?” It’s worth noting from the outset that the autistic spectrum is huge and incredibly diverse. In short, you don’t have to be exactly like JP or Jo – I certainly can’t hear electricity, and as anyone who’s had to interact with me between May and September will tell you, I’m very good at talking about the weather!

“…surely everyone feels like that?” Something that really surprised me about Twitter’s reaction to the documentary was the number of autistic people saying “Wait, you mean most people can’t hear electricity?!” Your own way of processing the world is all you’ve ever known, so it’s surprisingly easy to assume things are just the same for everyone, especially when we can’t talk about it. Sometimes very well-meaning people say things like “everyone feels like that” because it can be comforting to know it’s not just you – if you often find yourself thinking “well if everyone feels like that, why are they all coping when I’m not?”, you might want to stick around!

“…am I “autistic enough” to be taken seriously?” If you really have to ask, then you probably are. You might be surprised by how often people who literally have the official diagnosis still get told we’re in some way “not properly autistic” by random people on the internet because a.) we’re not exactly like their neighbour’s cousin’s friend’s 5-year-old son or b.) we just had an opinion on something. Unfortunately a lot of people put more emphasis on “catching out” completely hypothetical “fakers” rather than actually listening to and addressing the issues being discussed, and that’s their problem, not yours.

Research, research, research!

You can’t cram all possible aspects of autism into 47 minutes of television – or one article, or one discussion, or one person’s experiences – so you’re likely to get a clearer picture from looking elsewhere. It might be helpful to start keeping a list of your possible autistic traits, which you can also add to as and when relevant real-life situations arise.

Look up the diagnostic criteria, but be aware this is likely to focus entirely on negative traits and may use outdated language. Look through the National Autistic Society website (in particular, here’s a link to the NAS page on adult diagnosis). Take a few of the many online quizzes – they’re no substitute for formal assessment, and again might be outdated, but they often use at least some questions from the more official screening tools.

Possibly the most useful resource of all, though, is the autistic community. Everyone is different and every autistic person presents differently, so talking to large groups of autistic people is a great way to get a wide range of possible traits (some of which might contradict each other – one person’s special interest is another person’s sensory hell). On Twitter (and other tag-based sites such as Tumblr), you’ll find us in the #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics tags. On Facebook, your best bet is autistic-only or autistic-led groups – most do accept people who only suspect they might be autistic, there’s always the option of leaving if you find it’s not for you. Always check the privacy settings – if it’s a “closed group” or “secret group”, only other group members can see your posts, but if it’s a “public group” then everyone might see your posts or even your likes! (For “closed groups”, others may be able to see that you’re in the group, so you might also want to hide the Groups section of your Facebook profile.)

Should I seek a formal diagnosis?

This is an incredibly personal decision, with lots of pros and cons to weigh up. Unfortunately, waiting lists can take years, and many who seek diagnosis find themselves being fobbed off by people who don’t necessarily have a detailed or up-to-date understanding of autism. Some adults who realise they’re probably autistic feel that they haven’t been disadvantaged by not having the formal diagnosis and decide they’re happy with the self-diagnosis. For the most part, autistic communities online accept this as valid too, and some people find that community is all they need to finally understand themselves.

On the other hand, a formal diagnosis is really the only way to know for sure and get the closure you might need. It might give you access to additional support (although, fair warning, there isn’t very much of it), correct previous misdiagnoses, or help you to receive the correct treatment or support for any existing diagnoses you have. If you disclose your diagnosis to your employer, school or university, they are legally required to make any reasonable adjustments you need for work or study. And, of course, that piece of paper should clear up any remaining self-doubt, especially in a world that can be so fixated on “catching out the fakers” and disbelieving others.

In the end, only you can decide what is right for you. My only advice is please don’t be put off by other people (or the nagging voice in your own brain) saying “it’s overdiagnosed these days” or “you’re jumping on the bandwagon” or “you’re taking resources from people who Really Need ItTM”. I’ve written here before about the overdiagnosis myth – in short, as you may have seen in the documentary, autism is often UNDERdiagnosed. After a public awareness event like “Are You Autistic?”, it might be the case that lots of people realise they’re autistic at once, but that doesn’t mean they’re jumping on the bandwagon – they just all became more informed at the same time. We also sometimes have a habit of acting like there is one single most miserable person in the whole world and only they deserve understanding and support, when that’s really not how it works – in this case, if you’re autistic you’re autistic, and all the underfunding and long waiting lists aren’t your fault!

What’s the assessment process like?

“Are You Autistic?” showed two people undergoing various tests based on cutting-edge research from multiple academics – so basically, the chances are your assessment will be very different. Here’s that NAS page on adult diagnosis again, because they know far more than me about this!

For most people, the first point of contact would be an appointment your GP. If you’re already in contact with healthcare services for something else, it might be worth mentioning your suspicions to them. If you’re a student, the easiest option is probably getting in touch with the disability service at your university or college. In any case, feel free to bring notes (this is why I suggested making a list!) and, as GPs may not necessarily have a detailed understanding of autism, it may also be helpful to bring copies of the guidelines for autism recognition linked on the NAS page above.

You should then be referred on to a more specialist service for assessment, and the details of this can vary widely depending on where you live – some people have one long assessment and find out the results on the day, others have shorter appointments spread out over weeks or even months. There will be lots of discussion about exactly why you’re seeking a diagnosis, and as seen in the documentary, they are likely to ask about your childhood – you may even be asked to bring a family member or friend who has known you from childhood, or have them fill in a questionnaire to bring with you. You might be asked to carry out some seemingly random tasks that (apparently) highlight how you think and process information.

Eventually, if it goes the way you think it will, you’ll get a diagnosis alongside a longer detailed report. Increasingly, diagnosis is shifting towards one umbrella term of “autism spectrum disorder” or “autism spectrum condition”, but depending on where you live, you might still get a more specific label like “Asperger’s syndrome” (that would be mine!). Despite the myths, it’s all autism (hence the shift towards umbrella terms) – I used to think of “Asperger’s” and “autistic” as a bit like “English” and “British”. By the time you get to this stage you’ll have seen a lot of debate about this and you’ll probably have a strong opinion of your own, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on the terminology – the main thing is you’ve got the diagnosis!

What happens next?

On the face of it, probably not very much! Whilst a diagnosis may qualify you for some additional support, the biggest change is likely to be self-understanding – something many of us take for granted. You can finally start learning where you struggle, what your meltdown triggers are and how to mitigate that, and working with your autistic brain rather than against it. It’s important to remember that if you are autistic, then you’ve always been autistic, and a diagnosis doesn’t change anything at all about who you are – it just helps to explain why you are who you are.

So, if you think you might be autistic and are wondering whether you should look into it further, I’ll leave you with the GIF I’ve been replying to those messages with:

A GIF from a viral video of actor Shia LaBoeuf shouting "Just do it!"

10 reasons to watch “Are You Autistic?” (by someone who already knows it inside out!)

…Okay, as one of Are You Autistic?‘s lead presenters I’m more than a little biased, but this does also means I’ve seen it, multiple times, and can’t wait until it finally goes out beyond autism circles and into the wider world of people who could benefit from its messages! So here are just a few reasons why, this Wednesday at 10pm, you should see it too:

1. You definitely know at least one autistic person. I’m not just saying that because most people who read this will know me, either – we now think 1 in 100 people are autistic, and with so many people going undiagnosed and horrendously long waiting list for those whose autistic traits are picked up on, that number could be much higher. There’s going to be someone in your family, friendship groups, school, workplace, somewhere who is on the spectrum – even if you don’t know it, even if they don’t know it – and a little understanding and acceptance can go a long way.

2. It’s presented by autistic people. To be clear, it’s Sam Ahern and I who introduce the show and all its segments, provide the voiceovers, interview the experts, and generally guide the neurotypical newcomers through our world – and it should go without saying that we discussed, changed and contributed to every single one of our scripts. It shouldn’t be so groundbreaking or hard to believe for autistic people to lead the conversation about autism in the media, but I think this makes Are You Autistic? stand out.

Georgia Harper (that's me!) and Sam Ahern on set.

3. Two-thirds of the autistic people who feature are women. Autistic women are usually under-represented if not ignored entirely in media, but you’re going to run out of fingers trying to count them on this show. We discuss underdiagnosis, masking, and how stereotypes prevent women from accessing the support they need.

4. You’ll also see some really cool idents. Come on, it’s a giant person made of the Channel 4 blocks! What’s not to love?

5. We look at autism from the autistic perspective. Too often, the only autistic traits discussed are those that happen to affect the neurotypical people around us, and autism is framed as “odd behaviour” with no consideration for what the autistic person is actually experiencing. We go deeper, exploring sensory processing and executive function as two adults who suspect they might be autistic undergo assessments – with TV presenter and token neurotypical person Anna Richardson learning with the audience along the way.

6. It’s an example of how positive change can be made when you take action. Ambitious about Autism’s Youth Council contacted the producers last year because we had concerns – and how they listened!! We turned a project that was neurotypical-led into a show that is autistic-led. As well as Sam and I presenting, five other Youth Patrons feature in Are You Autistic?, directly speaking about their first-hand experiences. We chose to directly engage and are all very proud of the outcome, and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.

The Ambitious about Autism Youth Patrons sitting in a row, preparing to film vox pops.

7. It’s on straight after One Born Every Minute. Apparently, millions of people really enjoy watching childbirth, and you can all keep watching for a bonus education on autism with no extra effort!

8. We’ll smash a ton of myths. Think you can always tell if someone is autistic? Wrong. Think “everyone’s a little bit autistic”? Wrong. Think autism is overdiagnosed and professionals are too quick to use the autism label? Wrong. Take it away, Sherlock:

GIF taken from an episode of BBC's Sherlock - everyone at a press conference receives a text (from Sherlock) which reads

9. It acknowledges autistic parents of autistic children for once! I don’t want to give too much away, but this frequently sidelined group is represented, in a way which also nicely shows the huge diversity of abilities and needs within the autistic spectrum.

10. You might just see yourself reflected in this programme more than you expect… I mean, probably not, but you never know! The way I see it, adults who are autistic but don’t know it are the target audience of this show – and if we can help one person to finally understand themselves, then we’ll have done our job.

Are You Autistic?” will air on Channel 4 at 10.00pm next Wednesday, 28th March 2018.

Why autism is much more than an “excuse”, and why it matters

A collage of three separate headlines. Clockwise from top-left: "DR MIKE SHOOTER: Yes, some children suffer terribly. But I fear many parents want them to be labelled autistic... just to excuse their own failings", "Autism is vastly over-diagnosed. It's the parents' way out: We're too quick to label difficult children, the veteran child psychiatrist Dr Mike Shooter says", "Do some parents use autism to cover up bad behaviour?"

Recently, my Twitter feed has been full of a whole series of articles and so on telling the world that conditions such as autism and ADHD are a.) Overdiagnosed Actually and b.) used by parents as an “excuse” for “awful and embarrassing behaviour” or as “something to boast about”.


To be fair to Dr Mike Shooter, he’s got a childhood psychiatry book to plug, so it’s entirely possible that either he’s exaggerating his views for maximum interest, or the media are doing that for him to maximise interest in them. Still, though, the end result is the same: a load of “ARE WE DIAGNOSING AUTISM TOO QUICKLY?” headlines. Sadly, this narrative is still all too common – and as much as we’ve heard it all before, it can have a hugely harmful impact on how autistic and other neurodivergent people are (or rather, aren’t) diagnosed and supported in future.

In many cases, autism is UNDERdiagnosed. Unfortunately, it is common for people who seek assessment for autism to face waiting lists more easily measured in years than months . Although attitudes are improving, many people have to make multiple GP appointments, and face multiple dismissals, before they are finally offered a referral, making the process longer still. That’s a long time to wait when schools, employers, and other bodies insist on seeing an official piece of paper before doing anything to accommodate you. It’s frustrating to see some of the myths blocking access to diagnosis being repeated, particularly the suggestion that children who behave differently at home, school and other activities can’t be neurodivergent – many thrive in more structured environments, or “mask” their traits at great cost to their mental health or overall functioning, and subsequently struggle to get the support they need.

And that’s just those who recognise that they or their child might be autistic in the first place, in a society that still often sees autism as the Rain Man/Sheldon Cooper stereotypes. In recent years, we’ve seen a generation of autistic adults who grew up in a time when autism was totally unknown finally get the answers they need. Indeed, some parents and relatives of newly diagnosed autistic children discover that they are also autistic in the process. We now also know that restricted autism stereotypes have contributed to underdiagnosis of autism in women and girls, and that race and class are also factors that may prevent diagnosis. To say that autism is overdiagnosed erases all these experiences, and hampers attempts to reduce these problems.

Autistic adults exist. I really don’t understand why this gets forgotten so often. Autism is not a terminal illness, children grow up eventually, this is not a difficult concept. Some are only diagnosed as adults, some without parental support at all. Perhaps it’s nitpicking to point out every time someone slips into only referring to autistic people as “children”, especially given that in this instance it’s supporting a book about childhood, but it happens every time and this contributes to the continued missed diagnosis, disbelief and lack of support services for autistic adults.

Refusing to identify autism doesn’t make it go away. File under: “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. Autistic people don’t suddenly become autistic because a doctor says so – people who seek an assessment are evidently already struggling in some way or another, and telling them they ~shouldn’t have to label themselves~ doesn’t solve anything. When even the most clearly well-intentioned people say “it’s the human condition” or “everyone has that”, I think “then I’m failing at life by not Just Dealing With It like everyone else is” – and it’s fleeting, because I know why, but many people don’t and internalise that message alongside all the other negative ways people react to autistic traits. With the prevalence of mental health problems in autistic people is already shockingly high, growing up undiagnosed is a particularly prominent cause of mental ill health. In this sense, labels are empowering – far from creating new problems, a diagnosis provides the language, tools and acceptance necessary to resolve existing ones.

Autism, ADHD, and “bad behaviour” are very different things. One of my big pet hates about how autism is portrayed in media is that it’s usually framed as “odd mysterious behaviour” from the perspective of a neurotypical outsider (often a parent, which contributes to the focus on autistic children to the exclusion of adults) with little thought for, y’know, what the autistic person actually experiences.

Autism is not bad behaviour. Autism, sometimes, can lead to sensory overload provoking a meltdown. Meltdowns are pretty awful for everyone involved, most of all for the person actually experiencing it. A diagnosis won’t magically make that go away, but it will help the person and those around them understand their triggers and find coping mechanisms. Waving it away as bad behaviour will often only make things worse.

Actively asking viewers to answer to “Do you think some parents use autism to cover up bad behaviour?” encourages people to shame others – the parents and the autistic people who will one day grow up to read those tweets and comments (if, of course, they aren’t doing so already). This isn’t just a fun interesting debate – it affects real people.

These attitudes can have a detrimental real-world impact. Autistic people aren’t just there to be talked about – we’re seeing it all too. Undiagnosed autistic people read these articles and are put off questioning it further. Parents of undiagnosed autistic children read these articles and go back to blaming themselves instead of being able to explore support for their child. Even some of those who ARE diagnosed might start the self-doubt all over again, or wonder whether other people think they’re making it up or annoying others, and might be less likely to ask for accommodations in future. Others who don’t know any better might take this at face value and disbelieve autistic people (and their families), which if they’re in any position of power means less access to support. The narrative that the autism “label” isn’t important in the absence of other diagnoses almost had a catastrophic impact in south-west London last year, when CCGs considered restricting diagnosis to those who also have additional conditions.

The usual defence for questioning disabilities is “I don’t mean the GENUINELY disabled people” – but it’s precisely those Genuinely DisabledTM people and their families who face the backlash in a focus on entirely hypothetical “fakers”. Which raises another question: why are we so desperate to disbelieve disabled people and their loved ones? Is it because if you accept someone is disabled you might have to actively do something to accommodate them? Is the stigma still so great that people find it difficult to see someone as “disabled” and “capable of doing things” at the same time? In any case, it’s about time we stopped trying to avoid the existence of neurodiversity and started focusing on acceptance.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time

(Contains spoilers for Twice Upon A Time, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special)

This Christmas, Doctor Who fans were treated to not one, not two, but three Doctors. Before the much-anticipated regeneration into Jodie Whittaker at the end of Twice Upon A Time, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finds himself teaming up with the First Doctor (brought to life by David Bradley, who previously played original actor William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time) at the site of his first ever regeneration.  I really enjoyed the framing of the episode in original footage from the end of Hartnell’s era (The Tenth Planet, 1966) in a nod to the show’s history which also provides helpful context for younger viewers or those not familiar with the classic series.

The Doctors are faced with various puzzles – time itself freezing in place, the appearance of a World War One captain (Mark Gatiss) removed from his own timeline, and the mysterious activities of Testimony – but ultimately, their biggest threat is themselves. The Twelfth Doctor is tasked with convincing his predecessor to live on and regenerate to preserve his impact on the universe – and, in turn, convince himself to do the same. It was particularly interesting to see the younger Doctor grapple with the conflicting facets of his future legacy, “[serving] at the pleasure of the human race” on the one hand, “the Doctor of war” on the other. Along those lines, one of my highlights of the episode is a conversation between the First Doctor and returning companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) about why good triumphs over evil, with the former not yet realising his own contribution to “putting everything right when it goes wrong”, neatly summing up what the Doctor means to so many people.

Of course, two Doctors also means two TARDISes, with the First Doctor’s TARDIS demonstrating how the current TARDIS has changed inside and out over the decades, and his reaction to the modern TARDIS provides the opportunity for back-and-forth quips between the Doctors – especially juxtaposed with the Captain’s more standard “bigger on the inside” response, although I did also laugh at the 1914 character questioningly clutching a VHS tape! The same applies to the Twelfth Doctor’s use of not only sonic sunglasses but the now-familiar sonic screwdriver, not used until 1968 (Fury From The Deep) by the Second Doctor.

It has to be said, however, that the First Doctor’s recurring remarks about female companions and cleaning were significantly less funny and felt very forced and unnecessary. It’s worth noting that the First Doctor is only an “old man from the 1960s” from our perspective as viewers of a fictional TV show, while in the Doctor Who universe he’s a time-travelling alien who just happened to live in 1960s London for a while, and wouldn’t have so easily picked up attitudes of the time. It really isn’t representative of that Doctor’s era, and it’s a shame to think this might put younger women off watching the classic series or damage its reputation generally. I also would have preferred the older Doctor to challenge this directly rather than resorting to distraction and “you can’t say that” (which seems to imply “because it’s not allowed” rather than “because it’s wrong”) – Bill’s reactions are slightly better, but it shouldn’t have to be her job alone to defend herself.

That aside, there were other much better executed nods to the Doctor’s past, including heavy use of music from previous episodes and series (personally, I was particularly excited to hear the theme from Doomsday crop up). The brief return of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was predicted by many and thankfully used to advance the plot, resulting in a much less “shoehorned” feel than Amy Pond’s similar cameo in the previous regeneration story (2013’s The Time of the Doctor). Slightly more (pleasantly) surprising was the appearance of Nardole (Matt Lucas), making Twice Upon A Time his third Christmas special – not bad for a secondary companion in only one full series! The biggest shock of all, though, has to be the return of Rusty the Dalek-hating Dalek (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) from the Twelfth Doctor’s second episode Into The Dalek – it’s certainly a curveball, with even hardcore fans having virtually forgotten about the one-off character, but it’s done well and nicely bookends Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who. It’s quite a risk for a Christmas special, watched by many casual viewers who do not usually follow the show, to be so reliant on continuity, but for the most part the various references are at least explained.

While watching on Christmas Day I was beginning to think this wasn’t a particularly Christmassy special, so perhaps I should have seen the twist in the Captain’s tale coming. The scenes of the Christmas Armistice are incredibly touching, as is the Captain’s horror at discovering his war becomes known as World War One and his concern for the family left behind. It’s true that in an episode already laden with continuity references, it doesn’t exactly take a genius fan to guess which family this military character belongs to, but it doesn’t really need to be a surprise – the focus remains on one doomed man’s love for his children, and that emotion works just as well for casual viewers and newer fans who don’t pick up on the classic reference.

Finally, there’s That Regeneration, and I’m very grateful to whoever decided the full scene should be posted on the official Doctor Who YouTube channel because I keep coming back to watch it. The Twelfth Doctor has a knack for long speeches and this is no exception, with Peter Capaldi doing a great job of summing up the Doctor’s past and looking to the future, even if I did spent most of the time looking at my watch and waiting impatiently for what was to come…

Regeneration episodes always show frustrating little of the new Doctor, but the arrival of the thirteenth incarnation is at least slower-paced than that of her predecessor and allows for powerful details – the ring falling off, the camera showing viewers the TARDIS through the Doctor’s new eyes, the face that says it all. Jodie Whittaker has arrived. And, inevitably, she’s thrown straight into peril. Personally, I’m not reading too much into the now traditional TARDIS crash – it will hopefully persuade Christmas viewers to stay tuned for the next series, but I doubt the Doctor will be without her TARDIS for longer than an episode. The whole set-up greatly reminds me of Matt Smith’s 2010 debut in The Eleventh Hour, also the introduction of Steven Moffat as showrunner, which hopefully means the Thirteenth Doctor – along with incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall and a host of new companions – will hit the ground running.

…Is it time for series 11 yet?

thirteen regeneration

The A Word, Series 2 Episode 6

This series finale sees Joe’s old school hold an end-of-year show, led by relatives Alison and Becky, and inviting him back to perform.  It was great to see everyone involved doing all they can to include Joe on his terms rather than aiming for “normal” (especially given Alison’s track record) – incorporating his special interests (admittedly not difficult in an already very musical production) , allowing him to “dress up as Joe” rather than struggle with the uncertainty and sensory overload of a costume, and even the entire family getting up on stage with him when the big night came. I would have liked to see more exploration of the sensory aspects of stage performance – the bright lights, the noisy rehearsals, the expectant faces – but that side of autism has at least been covered elsewhere in the series, notably through Joe’s ever-present headphones.

Another advantage of this setting is the return to prominence of Joe’s former classmates, who are often far more accepting than the adult characters and demonstrate that Joe doesn’t need to change who he is in order to make friends. I was a little uncomfortable with Ramesh noting that “some people think gluten is bad for autism” without going on to dispute it (which would be entirely consistent with his wise-beyond-his-years character), given that many people still hold that belief and further restricting the diet of children who are often already limited in what they will eat can be dangerous,  but it is evident that he and Bill do not view Joe’s autism as a problem, speaking to him as they would to any other child.

It was a little jarring, then, for Becky to assume that “one day, I will be the only person Joe has in the world” later in the very same episode. In a society where accessibility and support for autistic adults are often even more limited than for children, Becky’s concerns are very real (if a little premature – Joe’s only seven, who knows how he’ll develop as he gets older?) and are no doubt shared by real-life siblings. It only becomes a problem when the focus is almost entirely on autism as a “burden” on neurotypical relatives at the expense of the autistic person themselves – and unfortunately, that framing is also reflected in the vast majority of media representations of autism.

Similarly, whilst many of Alison and Paul’s marriage problems have very little to do with Joe, and the range of ongoing storylines such as this continues to be a strength, I can’t help but be reminded of the “autism ruins relationships” trope that has also formed a wider media stereotype. Their arguments often refer to an “all this” that can too easily be substituted for “Joe”, and the general marketing of The A Word as a drama about autism doesn’t necessarily help matters. Having said that, as with previous episodes, I appreciated the camera angles making clear the impact of Joe witnessing these arguments (in this case, thanks to his headphones, seeing but not hearing). This is stressful for any child, but autistic children are too often talked directly about in their presence and assumed not to understand – Joe’s parents have been guilty of this in the past, and this week I was pleased to see them actually realise and respond to Joe watching on.

A recurring theme in this episode – and, to some extent, the series as a whole – is summed up by Ramesh: “What will you do after?”. Joe’s sudden exit in response, and Paul’s confession that he doesn’t see future possibilities for Joe (gee, thanks) echo many real-life conversations and, as a recent graduate currently grappling with that question myself, highlighted something strange in the way the issue is handled: with a lot of hand-wringing and Deep ConcernTM over the future of autistic children, yet still very little acknowledgement (and therefore support) of the autistic adults they will become in that future. Children like Joe can have similar possible futures to children like Emily, but only if we work to tackle the barriers faced by autistic people in the present. On the plus side, Mark’s growing independence and hopes of going to college provides a positive counterpoint (and his previous meltdown scenes will hopefully mean he can’t be dismissed as “but you’re so high-functioning”, as real-life autistic people in his position often are), and at least Becky later acknowledges that when Joe is older he might travel and go on to university as she is about to do.

Throughout these blog posts, I’ve tended to focus on the representation of autism sometimes at the expense of other aspects of the plot – and the finale, aiming to go out with a bang, features particularly dramatic moments which you’ll have to watch for yourself! Nevertheless, The A Word does position itself as being about the ups and downs of raising an autistic child, and in a climate where so many portrayals of autistic people do more harm than good, it is crucial for such a high-profile drama to get it right. Unfortunately, too often that hasn’t been the case so far, but for the most part I would say series 2 of The A Word has at least been an improvement on the first. With many now keeping their fingers crossed for a third series, and an ending ambiguous enough to suggest that will happen, I just hope the understanding and acceptance of autistic people on the part of all those involved in The A Word continues to grow as Joe does.