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The 'Storytelling Animals' of Autscape

Last week I returned to Autscape, the autism-run conference/retreat which takes place once a year and has become something of an annual utopia for various autistic folk. I first went two years ago when I presented on the early stages of my project and reported back with delight and amazement in this Medium post: Neuro-Revolutionaries: Listening to the Actually Autistic. Autscape remains an astonishing place: full of joy, care, surprise, delight and, to borrow the phrasing of autistic writer Katherine May, the electricity of every living thing. Between traditional academic presentations there are glow-sticks in the dark, retro games consoles, jigsaws, sensory toys, and delegate-run pop-up events such as 5-minute lectures, tabletop RPGs, stargazing and impromptu nature bioblitzes (to record the biodiversity of the beautiful grounds). But there’s no pressure to do all this other stuff; you can simply exist, safe within whatever blend of neurotype happens to reside in your particular brainmind. Just stroll around on your own, spend time stimming, or stim with others. Or just sit and be at peace.

There is no judgement at Autscape, no jostling for authority and intellectual positions like there can be at more traditional academic conferences. Instead, this is a place where being different is not just accepted but encouraged and embraced. That, of course, is mostly autistic difference, but respectful non-autistics are also welcome, and there is a clear abundance of gender fluidity and sexual variation (autisticness and queerness often get on sparklingly well).

This year I took along a one-hour creative writing workshop designed for autistic adults. It’s something I’ve planning to put together for a while and I knew from my first visit that Autscape would be the perfect place to trial it. I gave myself plenty of time to get it all prepared and rehearsed but I ended up getting quite nervous and anxious about it – I was unable to think about much else in the few days preceding. Despite having spent the last three years of my life researching autism and neurodiversity in great depth, and the twenty-nine years before that as an autism sibling, I still found myself worrying about whether I was pitching the workshop correctly or not. Was I being clear and constructive or patronising and confusing? Would the participants prefer a loose and open writing session, or a more structured step-by-step process? Would anyone actually turn up? I knew that if people did attend, I could anticipate a broad mix of experience from curious first-timers to seasoned writers, as well as a similarly broad range of autistic difference. But, in a sense, that made it a little harder; how could I craft an hour of workshop to suit everyone in those broad brackets?

In the end, I hung on to one guiding principle which arose from my research: permission. By that, I mean: giving yourself permission to write. From the start of this year, I’ve been attending monthly creative writing workshops led by friend and creative inspiration Tania Hershman. There’s a small group of us who meet for a couple of hours on a Monday evening in a pub in Didsbury while Tania gently gives us all a safe space to enclose ourselves where we can activate our personal permissions. Prompts, examples and ideas float from her magical hands in the form of podcasts about satellites, clippings from magazines, abstract images on the fronts of postcards but, ultimately, it always comes back to the noisy silence of our own brains and the scratch-scratch of our pens on paper.

Now, I don’t need much excuse or permission to get writing, but I do slip into bad habits of avoiding it and putting it off before getting grumpy with myself when I finally sit down and my brain is tired from all the hoovering. Framing myself within the structure of Tania’s workshops means that everything else is expelled – hoovered away, if you will - and writing time is enshrined. Quite simply, I’m giving myself permission to do nothing but write. I’m saying to myself: come on, you can do this. You are allowed to do this. So, when I was putting together the Autscape workshop I married up this sense of permission with something similar which had been echoing out of the reading for my PhD research.

All too often, the artistic abilities and intentions of the autistic are bullied out. This is done through deep and pernicious ignorance on the part of the non-autistic, but also through societal structures and expectations which autistic people can start to believe about themselves. Banal example: thanks to Rain Man and Curious Incident and Sheldon Cooper (blah and etc), culture has this tendency to position autism as a condition which is much more interested in, say, computers, maths, machines, technology, systems rather than, say, sculpture, poetry, drama, fiction. Such ideas have been compounded by intellectual figures of authority who come up with their various theories that ‘explain’ autism, many of which lead to the same deep trench of assumptions that autistic people just aren’t interested in being creative. It's a boring and frustrating conclusion which has been amply proven wrong, but it persists. What follows is that whenever an autistic person does something creative – be that painting a picture or tracing an invisible pattern across a carpet – it is rarely seen as fully intentional or fully meaningful. For much more on all this, read some Melanie Yergeau, some James McGrath.

In turn, this leads to autistic people absorbing that same belief about themselves. They’re autistic and hopeless, everything they say and do is meaningless, so why bother saying or creating anything? Fortunately, the artistic impulse is not so easily quashed and often finds ways to emerge, and often with thrilling brilliance (see Ada Hoffmann's brilliant novel The Outside as an example). And, by the time autistic people get to Autscape, a self-creativity of some sort has usually been discovered. But that self-doubt still lingers, as self-doubt tends to. And, as all writers know; self-doubt is one of our greatest demons. And so, the imperative for my workshop became simply this: do the workshop. Create that space for permission to be self-given.

I started the hour with this slide:

A bit hokey, perhaps, but I think it did the trick. I’m very pleased to report that the workshop was a wonderful success. I kept the content and the exercises simple (but not patronising) and stripped everything down to the basics: here’s a character, an object, a location; here’s how you do a good opening line; here’s a few examples of some successful flash fictions. And here’s a room. And here’s some time. Let yourselves be storytelling animals.

The second best moment was when I looked across the room during the final ten minutes and saw twenty-two autistic people writing brand-new flash fictions that would not have existed were it not for that space, that time, that permission. And the best moment? The twenty minutes of impromptu spoken word readings that took place immediately afterwards. I’ve never heard such a brilliant, beautiful and beguiling set of tales. There were moonprints on lawns, brains in trolleys, and this gorgeous line by @CuriosityRocks:

“The so-called haunted house was quite miffed at the neighbouring properties who firmly turned their backs on it.”



For more on Autscape, check out this reflection by comedian & poet Kate Fox who gave a presentation on Doctor Who and Neurodiversity which, very annoyingly, I had to miss. But Kate and I spent a thrilling hour or so chatting in the afternoon sun about the hazy hinterland of neurodivergence and she is someone I hope to encounter again and again across all times and space.

I also caught this excellent talk by artist Sonny Hallett in which she discussed the tendency for autistic people to make intense connections with others – something which flies in the face of the multitude of nonsense theories about autistic lack of community, empathy and the desires for social connection. But its worth reading for the gorgeous illustrations alone.

That was the main theme of Autscape this year: Making Connections. And so, in the spirit of the theme, my music choice for this post is the very song I’m listening to right now. The magisterial ‘Everything’s Connected’ by Jon Hopkins:

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