This past Wednesday an impossible miracle: I left not only the house but the actual city, travelling down (up?) to London to seek my fortune. Well, to seek the LSE Litfest and their Autism in the Arts panel, so in fact all I found was a blogpost and minus £17.80 for the train ticket and no sort of insight into the world of autistic culture, quelle surprise.
Guests were autistic public speaker Ros Blackburn, and two neurotypical writers whose recent works have been inspired by respectively their sister and child, Emma Claire Sweeney and Jem Lester. The event is available as audio on the LSE Podcast SoundCloud here, or there’s a good recap thread from @littlehux on Twitter who was also present. (It would probably be good form for me to relisten to the audio before writing this but I don’t have the time nor the inclination, frankly, so if I get anything wildly wrong please do bring it to my attention.)
Before I get into it, I wanna point out that the majority of my complaints are addressed towards the actual structure of the event itself rather than targeted at the speakers on a personal level. The two neurotypical speakers, though there were some elements I was mildly uncomfortable with, were largely very sensitive and thoughtful in their speeches.
I did have some issues with the choice of autistic guest, Ros Blackburn. I felt she – well, misrepresented wouldn’t be the right word because she was representing her own personal experience, but I felt that if they were going to book only one autistic guest, she was not an appropriate one for this event. I enjoyed parts of what she said, and she did bring up a few things that I feel are very worthy of our consideration that hopefully I’ll get round to discussing in depth in a later post, in particular concerning how people who aren’t really part of the discourse get overlooked. I’ve addressed this in a tweet thread before: the fact that while I know there is a fairly good range of different ‘types’ of autistic people within in the online neurodiversity movement, there are always going to be people who cannot get involved and I’m honestly not entirely sure how best to represent their interests without speaking for them. It’s a valid concern – for people who can’t write, or read, and who don’t get to attend in-person events, there’s a lot of limitations.
But. This event is Autism in the Arts, in a literary festival, supposedly discussing the revolutionary possibilities of autistic representation within culture, and particularly within literature. To have the only autistic panel member be someone who neither reads books nor particularly watches screen media, how much of a dialogue on this specific topic are we going to start? Considering the amount of work going on regarding autistic culture in the online world, how much are we missing out on? Ms Blackburn’s perspective isn’t one that should be ignored, but it should have been presented alongside other autistic artists from a variety of backgrounds – as well as critics or cultural studies experts, perhaps, to really get a wide view. Especially considering that I, and I think many others, would strongly disagree with some of the points Ms Blackburn was making. Again, I want to stress that I don’t mean to invalidate experiences that are different than mine – I do, however, have a problem with an overall fairly negative outlook and claims like “I don’t think it’s possible to offend an autistic” being made as a generalising statement to a presumably primarily neurotypical audience without having other autistics along to present an alternative. I mean, I’m definitely offended most of the time, but I also very much love being autistic. We need both, and more.
I brought up the question of intersectionality during the Q&A but I think it got a little overlooked in the rest of the discussion about representation in general, I don’t remember anyone specifically discussing it. The entire panel, probably to nobody’s surprise, was white and middle-aged. There was nothing that I recall brought up about feminism, race, LGBTQ+, etc, which at this point should all be required discussion in any identity discussion. And not only discussion, but with people actually representing from their own personal experience. Nothing about intersectionality, nothing about culture or criticism as an industry, nothing about trying to be autistic and an artist.
At some point I recall someone on the panel claiming that there had been ‘some difficulty’ in contacting autistic panel members. Which seems odd to me, because I know there are a few of us who I follow who would’ve been happy to contribute to the event who are actually involved in the arts world, and that a few people directly tweeting them saying as much. Hell, I’d’ve done it, though I suppose “is autistic, has a tumblr and nearly a degree” doesn’t seem like much of a qualification. But call me next year when I’ve got a degree and some papers published, LSE, I’ll make sure you do it properly.
Speaking of the Q&A, this is where my biggest problem comes in. Back when the event was still being advertised without any autistic panel members, some of the Twitter discussion with LSE’s accounts basically boiled down to “well, yes, we are lacking in autistic voices but don’t worry, there’s a Q&A!” – which, as we mentioned, was hardly ideal for representation in the first place considering the fact that extemporaneous speech isn’t exactly going to be every autistic’s forte. Regardless, considering my aforementioned problems with the choice of autistic panelist, it seemed very important to get a proper discussion going during the Q&A – so it seemed just slightly pointed when Professor Martin Knapp, who was chairing the event, made a point to say “ask questions, but no lectures please”. I’m relatively sure it was at least partly directed at those of us who’d made some noise on social media. As though we hadn’t just sat and listened to lectures from the panelists themselves? But god forbid autistics in the audience provide their perspectives rather than just asking questions that allowed the panelists to continue to provide theirs. I understand to some extent not wanting anyone to monopolise the whole discussion. Which I would happily have done. But it wasn’t a discussion really, and to pretend this was in any way equivalent to having three autistic voices up on the stage is laughable.
Again, that’s not a comment on the panelists who were there. I very much appreciated, in fact, that Mr Lester in particular said in response to my question that until the whole Twitter thing went down he hadn’t really considered the issue of representation. That’s the kind of allyship we do need: people who can admit that there will be things they don’t realise and don’t know, rather than people who get overly defensive or pretend they knew everything all along.
I also appreciated that Ms Sweeney and Mr Lester both took the time to talk with me afterwards – we had a brief but interesting discussion about how to deal with the problem of double-address. This was more coming from the writerly side than the autistic side, to be honest: I tend to write this blog, my poetry and my Twitter with the assumption of an autistic audience. I’ve been wrestling recently with how to write for both a neurotypical and autistic audience at once, particularly considering I plan to publish my dissertation at some point. Anyway we had a bit of an interesting discussion about that, and then I got moved along halfway through a sentence by events staff so that people could get their books signed. Ben (AutisticErtia on Twitter who I’d gone to the event with) who I was with pretty much got interrupted by someone straight away before any discussion, though I didn’t catch what he was asking them about. We had, by the way, been told that if we wanted we could talk to the panelists after the event, and while I recognise they were under no obligation it was the events staff and not the panelists themselves who decided we’d had enough time, which did annoy me. Again, I get that this isn’t the Satisfy All Of Sophia’s Questions Show, but it reiterated the sense that this whole event was lip-service to the idea of representation without engaging with too many of the actual issues, because they didn’t provide the right platform to do so.
I wasn’t expecting anything near the depth of where we might get in our own discussions because we’ve got a lot of self-learned background on it, nor of the kind of things I and other academics are writing about for research. But the whole thing felt like a basic “it’s hard for autistic people to speak for themselves, but lets just talk to these three people” event, clearly set up for neurotypical discussion (the room, incidentally, was incredibly warm and very bright, so it was all kinds of sensory fun). It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t overly damaging, but it felt in essence like a repetition of the kind of tepid discussion we’ve had more than enough of when discussing our place in culture. Don’t come presenting this panel as part of the “Revolutions” theme of this year’s Litfest if you aren’t willing to let it even vaguely engage with any of the revolutionary cultural activity that’s actually going on within the autistic world.
(There were a whole lot of other questions I would have asked if I had the chance, though I think some of them would’ve been a bit too specific to my own research for the situation anyway, perhaps. The limitations of narrative realism and the assumption of a neurotypical audience in particular I feel have a significant impact on autistic creators ability to express honestly within literature/film. I’m gonna write them all up as proper blog-essays when I have the chance, so keep an eye out for that coming after my next deadline’s over.)