This is the text of the talk given by Jenn Layton at the first Autism Dialogue Conference, Sheffield Quaker Meeting House, 14.12.18. Audio is here
Autistic Beauty Revealed
“The cave paintings at Chauvet in France demonstrate a new development in human artistic ability around the time of the major ice ages in Europe. These incredibly beautiful, photorealistic depictions were vastly more sophisticated than the previous simpler images, which we might typically recognise if we were asked to think about such early art.
Researchers from the University of York have aligned this new ability within a cluster of others that emerged at about the same time. Namely those of being able to focus intensely on one thing when making complex flint tools, to remember large swathes of terrain in order to hunt for food that may be under cover of snow and over a much greater area because of animals becoming scarcer, and the ability to enjoy one’s own company more, because of longer darker nights and poorer weather making going outside of your shelter risky and uncomfortable. The same researchers have examined contemporary populations and have identified autistic people as being the closest fit in our own abilities and preferences to these new iterations of humanity that prevailed about thirty thousand years ago.
So to make this point as literally as I can, it seems autistic traits developed as a result of natural selection in order to give the people with them an evolutionary advantage under very specific conditions. We, autistic people, may have been instrumental in ensuring the survival of our species, which is a pretty big deal.
Thus, both modern science and art can appreciate very vividly the contributions an autistic version of humanity has made for the benefit and advancement of all of humankind.
I reflect with sadness that the same cannot be said for many of our peers today in the 21st Century where being autistic is negatively stereotyped, stigmatised and regarded as a burden because of the cost associated with supporting people who are disabled by their inability to live in a world that can be stressing for them but which is also convinced of it’s own inherent validity in many instances.
Attending Autism Dialogue has opened up a space and a place to reflect upon this state of being, both in my own life and more widely in the society I live in, the treatment I have received as an autistic individual both with and without a diagnosis and an opportunity to share these and hear those of other participants, both autistic and non-autistic.
I, we, have experienced a plethora of emotions, both collectively and individually. All of these became contents for the vessel of exploration that Dialogical Practice revealed itself to me to be. Perhaps the thing that struck me the most was the intensity of the perception in the room. At all events, autistic people were in the majority and our monotropic concentration that was focussed on the shared dialogue was palpable in its intensity. Similarly, the gentle stimming that many autistic participants subtly engaged in was catching. Our non-autistic peers commented how they felt comfortable engaging in their own stims which they would publicly pack away in the presence of others.
I feel the Autism Dialogue events enabled a space for all human participants to experience autism in their own way, This unadulterated, unmasked undiminished autistic experience allowed us to explore its nuances and limits in a very visceral way. Ultimately though I left with a greater sense of who I am, a sense that there are others like me and that there is a beauty in my difference and our differences that has the potentiality to make a difference that I hope, at some point will be recognised as universally as the cave paintings in Chauvet are today.
Autism is a construct, a descriptive word. Today people with these characteristics are widely considered disabled and often lacking. Thirty thousand years ago we may have been revered as mystics, artisans or clan hunters if current research is correct. This makes me think that little by little and using tools and experiences such as Autism Dialogue we have a chance to chip away at the negative perception ‘Autism’ creates and transform it into something powerful and positive once more. Autism Dialogue has given me hope for the future in seeing myself and my community in this way and a new understanding of autistic beauty. I would like to thank Jonny for his work in making this happen and allowing me to be a part of it.”
Autism Dialogue Conference talks: Jen Layton. 14 Dec 2014
Listen to this talk here (at the start of Part.2) https://autismdialogue.wordpress.com/conference-2018-archive
Jenn Layton’s website: www.jenlayton.rocks