Thursday, 30 March 2017

On Gratitude And Thanking Non-Autistic People For Their Support, Autism Acceptance, And Positivity

[Note: All photos in this post are taken from the gratitude diary I kept throughout 2016.  Note too that I pretty much free wrote the following.  It's not an essay, struggled over for weeks.]

I am a great believer in gratitude.

It's no secret that I have plenty of hard days, that my mental health is sometimes shot to pieces in ways that make it hard to see the light.

Yet there is light.  There is always light somewhere.  Always awe, always wonder.  Feeling the warmth of the sun in the day - or the strength of the storm when the sun is hidden.  Watching the night sky and considering how far away each point of light is from us and from each other.  Or smiling at the closer lights of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, the glorious face of the moon, and the chance of spotting the International Space Station.

Sunrise, viewed from Cullercoats

Today I could be miserable.  Mentally I'm finding today very tough.  I am also anxious about something I can't change.  My thought patterns run wild.  I could be telling myself I have nothing much to celebrate.  There was a time I couldn't find positives.  I would sit for an hour with a piece of paper to write a list.  Sometimes I only wrote one thing.  Sometimes I wrote nothing.

Yes the positives were there and are here now.  I sit on a comfortable sofa surrounded by soft toys and books.  Music is playing and I had the freedom to choose to play it.  In this room I have a guitar, a bubble gun, art materials, and many photograph albums covering my entire life.  I have notebooks, a giant rosary on the wall (honest!), pictures on the walls - some drawn by a friend, blankets, a clarinet, and a window letting in light.  Through that window I see a tree and the sky and I hear the singing of the birds.

Beyond this room I have family.  I have friends too.  Most of my friendships are recently formed.  Because I have chosen to go out and meet people.  Some are embryonic, some more full fledged.  I can travel into the city centre and get involved with all kinds of things run by good people.  And - as much as my health allows - I'm choosing to do that.

I refuse to not live.  And I strive to be grateful for what I have, who I am, and the opportunities around me.

I began to learn more about the power of gratitude last year.  I joined an online gratitude group.  The idea was that each day members would post words or photos expressing gratitude for something in their lives.  It didn't have to be a big thing.  Whether it was a plate of beans on toast or a massive life changing event didn't matter.  I posted in that group nearly every day - I missed ten over the course of the year.   Focusing on the positive in that way helped me, one of many things last year that helped me.  Seeing other people post their positives helped too.  And for me it changed my life.  There were plenty of days on which I would go out and seek positives and find previously unimagined things for which I could be grateful.

In short, I believe in gratitude.  I don't believe in ignoring the horrible parts of life or pretending they don't exist.  This isn't some method of positive thinking that loses sight of realism.  I believe in acc-ent-u-ating the positive.  But not e-lim-i-nating the negative.

Recently I decided I wanted to go further.  I don't just want to be thankful.  I want to act in thankfulness.  If I am thankful for a person, to say so.  If I am thankful for an organisation, to say so.  If I'm thankful for the great cake at a cafe, to say so.  Not just to myself.  Not just in an online group.  But to the person, organisation, cafe or whatever else I am grateful to and for.

As an intentional part of this process I have begun a little project.  I wouldn't have thought of it without the suggestions of a friend who pretty much came up with the idea.  Together we brainstormed - and I really hate that word! - and came up with a plan.

We, as autistic people, would seek to thank those people - especially but not exclusively the not-autistic people - who have helped us, supported us, and accepted us.  There were events leading up to this decision.  I don't need to recount them here.  Let it just be said that on a recent occasion one of us was badly hurt and mentally wounded by a group of autistic people who treated us very badly and didn't accept our autistic needs.  It was a group of not-autistic people who came to the rescue.  They understood, accepted, and gave lots of support through what was an extremely difficult situation. We looked at this situation knowing there had been betrayal by our own community and acceptance outside it.  The one of us who was hurt didn't behave badly and wasn't being mean to anyone.

Autistic Pride Wrist

As we talked together, that group of non-autistic people was the first thought of to be thanked.  They really were marvelous.

But then my friend took it further.  Why not thank other non-autistic (neurotypical, allistic) people and organisations?  The ones whose actions and attitudes can be described as examples of good practice.  The ones who believe in us and lift us up.  The ones who encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves we can be.  The ones who will sit with us in silence.  The ones who will see us through meltdowns and shutdowns.  The ones eager to learn and understand if they don't already.  The inclusive ones.  The ones for whom autism acceptance and appreciation is already a given.  Why not thank them?

I'd been getting annoyed by some things I'd seen online in autistic communities.  Particularly the way people can be treated if we perceive them not to be doing things just right.  I might agree that the things aren't right.  I'm no big fan of ABA or Autism Speaks and there are far worse things than either of those.  But I'm less of a fan of the times that people who might like ABA are made out to be evil.  They're not evil.  They're doing their best and children given ABA or restricted diets or any of the rest of it have parents who love them and want the very best for their autistic children.  While I might disagree about methods I'm not going to disagree about love.

I think there's a tendency online to find a bad particular situation and apply it broadly.  Not just with autism.  In every sphere.  Take politics - hey, the UK is leaving the EU and there are many memes telling how the people who voted to leave are majorly racist.  Some might be.  But I firmly believe most are not.  Of course they're not.  Or Muslims get called terrorists.  And all Christians get called homophobic bigots.  The particular is applied too widely.

A woman wants to cure her child.  That gets applied to many women until, in extreme cases, the "autism mums" are all seen as bad mothers who hate their children.  In reality of course nearly all of them deeply love their children and may be desperate to get them the best support there is.  Because they do need support - raising a severely autistic child isn't exactly easy.  Sometimes desperation may lead to unwise paths.  Sometimes.  But not to unloving paths.

Then there's Julia.  The new autistic character on Sesame Street.  One of the most autism positive things I've ever seen, as least on a TV show.  The puppeteer's son is autistic.  The designer of Julia felt very strongly about things because of all the autistic children he's known.  And the makers of the show have tried to do as good a job as they can having decided where on the spectrum Julia might be.

I have seen so many posts about how Julia is a terrible thing and how the makers of Sesame Street should be ashamed.  I don't need to give the reasons I've read.  Many of them were total rubbish.  Perhaps the makers need to continue to learn.  That's true and they say so themselves.  Perhaps Julia isn't some totally perfect autistic character, perfectly portraying every aspect of the condition.  It looks like she'll do a very good job though.

So I've been getting saddened when, especially online, the autistic community can sometimes [The word there is sometimes, not often.  That's deliberate.] spend a lot more time and energy blasting things and not much time at all congratulating people and organisations for the good they do.  We can get so stressed about whether we are autistic or have autism (and we can't agree on that ourselves) that we miss the picture of caring non-autistic people working their butts off for the sake of autistic people.

The Autistic Fringe Yurt, Edinburgh 2016

We decided we wanted to say thank you for the good.  Not ignore the bad.  But say thank you for the good.  So my friend and I planned.  I confess she was the instigator of the whole thing.  Our planning didn't take long.

April is known as Autism Acceptance Month.  It's a month in which many of us will campaign to be accepted.  And I will be glad to campaign - as long as autistic children suffer, while there aren't resources for brilliant child-centred early intervention, while adult support can be almost nonexistent, while people push for cures or in desperation use bleach solutions, while the situation elsewhere may be far worse than in the UK, and so on.  As long as there's a need I am happy to campaign.

But my friend and I want to spend the month rejoicing over the places and people where we are already accepted.  We want to rejoice over good practice.  We want to rejoice that there are lots and lots of great people out there.  Both of us know that there is much campaigning still to be done on many fronts.  Here in the UK and across the world.

So what are we doing?  My friend has bought cards and found out addresses.  She is sending personal thank you cards to people throughout the month of April.  "You've done this for me.  I appreciate it and you.  Thank you for your support/care/acceptance/creative compassion."  Or something like that.

I have started a Facebook page.  This one:

I plan to publicly thank someone each day in April and to let them know that they have been thanked.  Sometimes I'll have to anonymise what I write on Facebook - but they'll know who they are because I will thank them privately.

We'll thank the people who behave like this for us.

My hope is that other autistic people will be a part of the page and thank those who have helped them, accepted them, loved them, supported them, in large ways and small.  My hope is that autistic friends might join in the game and maybe some autistic strangers too.  My hope is that the page will be a place filled with gratitude and positivity.  I also hope that others might see the page, see what kind of things autistic people appreciate and seek to act along those lines.

It's a little daunting though.  I have to find thirty people and groups to thank and I haven't made my list yet.  I've also got the first thoughts of another project in mind that will take a lot more work than posting thirty things on a Facebook page.

Beyond that I don't know what will happen.

One of my soft toys enjoying Greenbelt festival.

We hope to bring smiles to ourselves and each other as we remember all the good people in our worlds.

We both hope that we can bring smiles to people and encourage them for what they're doing and being for us.

We hope that our simple thank yous will enrich the lives of those around us.

We hope too that saying thank you will not prove controversial.  I've already been told that it is and I've had grumbles about we poor marginalised autistic people thanking privileged neurotypical people.  Enough of that.  Please.  I know we could thank autistic people - for a start we could thank each other for acceptance.  But this time, just this once, we're going to look outside the autistic community and hand out a whole load of gold stars and celebrate autism acceptance in our own possibly peculiar way.

Autism Acceptance Month begins in two days.  This year I am looking forward to it.

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