Voices from the Spectrum #8: Paul Isaacs on Personhood and Autistic Identity

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Paul Isaacs is an autism advocate, trainer, and public speaker from England. He says that public speaking about his experiences and the experiences of others has helped him find his voice and develop a true skill. He always emphasizes the positive aspects of how life can be lived with autism. He uses the acronym PEC to describe the qualities people who work with autism should have: Positivity, Empathy, and Compassion. He is also a published author and blogs at Autism from the Inside.

In your most recent blog post, you discussed your dislike of the tendency to attribute someone’s neurology to their entire identity or personhood. However, there are many other autistic self-advocates who insist that this premise is important for improving the treatment of people with disabilities. What advice do you have for parents who are trying to help empower their children with the skills and confidence to be successful and are receiving conflicting information from autistic self-advocates in this area?

I would say that being born a human being should be seen. Every person on this planet is a human being regardless of ability, disability, race and gender. Understanding the “autism” is very person specific, environmentally specific and situationally specific – these different “pieces” which make up the autism have their own unique presentation, and also the way in which the person is affected will differ not only due to the “pieces” and their trajectory, but what the “pieces” are in the first place. It is like being a detective, searching out what works and what doesn’t are both equally important.

With regards to my identity, I see myself as a part of humanity, so therefore I am a person first – personally, my autism affects my visual and auditory perception, language processing, cognitive processing, learning difficulties, etc, but these are PART of me, not the totality of my BEING .

I have personality traits (which everybody has regardless of autism or not) which make me happy, silly, draw, sketch, meet up with people, etc. These are human things which I value. I am not ashamed of my autism, but I don’t glamourise it either. I keep a balanced, open-mind. I can only speak for myself (how autism affects me). No one can speak for ALL, so, in that sense, people can learn from different perspectives and realities.

You were diagnosed at a relatively late age even though you exhibited clear signs of autism when you were young. What do you think was the main reason for this delay? Have you seen evidence of this still occurring today or has autism awareness reached new heights such that this sort of situation will likely never happen again?
I was born in 1986 and although there were specialist autism bases around my area, my autism wasn’t picked up due to circumstantial insistences. I was seen by an educational psychologist in 1993 and was seen by a child and adolescent mental health team in 1996 and an adult mental health services in 2007 and 2008 before I was formally diagnosed in 2010.
I would say it was not anybody’s fault as no information was given to my parents during my time in mainstream education. When I was in secondary school (I gained functional speech between the ages of 7/8), there where several meetings with my head, as well as the latter years of primary school. However, there was an autism base at the secondary school, and I would speak with the students and even attend lunchtime meetings and eat with them.
My Mum though I was solely brain damaged due to the placental abruption and lack of oxygen when I was born and that was the only name she had for my “behaviours,” but she had no doubt that I was a person before any of these difficulties.
What are you asked to speak about most often?

Sensory perceptional and language processing seems to be the one I get asked to do; however, on my booking page I have slowly built up other areas and topics.

What mistakes do autism advocates make?

Getting over-invested in the autism “politics” this where “identity” can become in crisis, and mental health can breakdown. I am talking through observation and also experiencing it myself – Donna Williams an advocate, speaker, consultant and author on the spectrum gave me some sage advice, and that is to take a step back, regain healthy boundaries, find yourself and do socially binding things.

Autism politics can get rather unhealthy to be a part of, there can be militancy by people on an off the autism spectrum that can be rather distressing and uncomfortable to be a part of. My personal opinion is that everybody has a story and that their realities are just as valid as anyone else’s – there should not be a single representation, but a more egalitarian outlook where all person hoods and realities are taken into account. It is my opinion that autism isn’t culture, but a “culture” has been created around autism.

Describe some of the factors that have contributed to the personal and professional success you have achieved today.

My parents have helped me a lot over the years on both a personal and professional level – it started with boundaries, right and wrong, having a moral compass, seeing “failure” as normal and therefore accepted, seeing me as “Paul” first, a boy, a teenager, an adult, and letting me experience the outside world and all that it entails.

What are some of the strengths and challenges you’ve experienced as a result of being on the spectrum?

I still have problems with language processing, visual perception (faces, objects, people), visual distortions (foreground, background), under-processing on my right side (motor and visual), sensory integration, movement, processing “self” and “other” – being mono-tracked and seeing the significance of what is being said and what is happening (life skills have helped so much in this area) and learning difficulties.

I don’t know if my strengths are autie-specific. I do enjoy writing poetry, creating abstract artwork, and writing books. I like creating things, watching movies, and I also like alternate fashion.

What advice do you have for parents of autistic children who respect the knowledge and experience of autistic self-advocates and are looking for guidance in helping their children develop their potentials?

Go with the child on their journey. It will be different for each person – seem as your child first, understand the pieces of their “autism,” and work from there. Let the child experience life.

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