Keynote speech delivered by Anna Nibbs SFHEA at the first annual Autism Dialogue Conference, held in Sheffield on 14 December 2018
Hello everyone! I’m Anna. I’m a learning and teaching specialist and an autistic person, with a huge interest in enterprise and creativity.
Today I’ll be speaking about how different perceptions of the world influence how, and what, we create, and exploring creativity and performance in communication, especially autistic communication. I’ll also reflect on how this connects with my Autism Dialogue experience.
This talk occupies a slightly awkward space between the personal and professional – I was asked to present partly because of my professional experience, but I’ve actually booked a day’s holiday from my main job to be here! So I’m not entirely sure which role to perform.
But, navigating my way through awkward ‘between-spaces’, and feeling somewhat ill-defined, is a fairly common experience for me.
I’m pretty conventionally successful. I have a full time, decently-paid job, good qualifications. My work is intellectually satisfying, fun, and rewarding because I get to help people with stuff.
I’ve always been autistic; I just didn’t realise it for a long time! There’s a lot I do outside my main job that links with autism – writing, training, speaking, drawing … parenting.
Some more about day job, then:
I work with lecturers at the University of Sheffield to help them build enterprise and entrepreneurship skills into the courses they teach – that is, to make their courses more interesting, and help students develop extra skills while they’re learning their subject.
When I ask a roomful of people to shout out the first word they think of when I mention ‘enterprise’, I get lots of different responses. Sometimes people mention Star Trek – I personally go along with this. I mean, ‘To boldly go where no-where has gone before’ – that’s very apt! A lot of people think of business.
Enterprise isn’t just starting a business.
It’s a few years old, but I like this definition:
…enterprise is about having ideas, doing something about them and taking advantage of opportunities to bring about change. It is about making things happen.” (The University of Sheffield)
And one of the most important aspects of enterprise or entrepreneurship is creativity.
During teaching sessions on creative thinking, I often ask my students to look at an image like this (“Clip-Art” cartoon drawing of a purple teacup and saucer. The cup has a pink handle and is orange 2
inside, and contains tea/coffee), and tell me the words that come into their head when they see it. Here are some possible interpretations of this one:
• Something to drink out of
• The ‘ritual’ of afternoon tea
• A decorative ornament
• Part of something larger (a tea-set)
• A PowerPoint slide with a ClipArt picture of a cup on it
• A collection of shapes and lines
• A collection of pixels
• Different wavelengths of light collectively causing an image to be projected onto a screen
There are so many different interpretations of what we actually see literally; and what we think about what we see. The variety of ways our brains interpret the signals we receive from the world around us dictate how we interact with, and respond to, that world. This influences the things we create, and the means by which we create those things.
I consider myself creative, in a fairly conventional, overt sense. I’ve loved art – especially drawing – since I was first physically able to hold a pencil. I’ve also done a lot of performing.
I started with drama, then switched to music. Playing in bands was how I attained that supposed ‘Holy Grail’ of being an autistic with a decent number of friends (not all autistics need human friends, by the way).
I’ve performed a lot of roles throughout my life. ’Girl’. ‘Woman’. ‘Friend’. ‘Girlfriend’. ‘Wife’. ‘Mum’. ‘Employee’. ‘Musician’. ‘Student’. ‘Teacher’. ‘Expert’.
I played the role of ‘neurotypical person’ for years without even realising it.
I’ve often played ‘someone who knows what they’re talking about’, when inside, I’m terrified. This gets easier with experience and practice – I’ve reached a point, for example, where the feeling I get after a successful teaching session can be as good as coming offstage after playing an awesome gig with a band.
There are many ways to create, and none of them happen in a vacuum. Science, art, innovation, entrepreneurship, our understanding of the world around us… all have evolved over the course of human history through people selecting or discarding, reconfiguring, and progressively building on what has gone before. When a jazz musician improvises a solo, they draw upon an immense mental ‘library’: scales, arpeggios, melody, harmony, rhythm; musical history, social history, context, genre; the environment they’re performing in; technical knowledge of their instrument. But they don’t use all of it – they select which elements will combine together effectively to create a dazzling performance.
Lots of autistic people do something similar.
Echolalia = ‘the term of art for the way that autistic people sample the speech they hear around them and repurpose it for their own use’ (Steve Silberman, Neurotribes) 3
I was involved in a Twitter conversation recently, where a mother was describing her autistic son’s echolalia. He’d reached a point in his development where rather than simply echoing words, phrases and scripts exactly as he hears them, he’d begun to adapt and riff on the things he hears, remixing them and constructing something new from them.
Even autistics who don’t obviously do echolalia every day do this. To ‘perform’ in different social contexts, I’ve built up this repertoire of words, phrases, facial expressions, tones of voice, and mannerisms that I can selectively apply to a situation, based on prior, contextual learning, and practice.
Like the jazz musician, I’m drawing upon a mental library of resources to riff my way through social situations.
But, like a musician fluffing their notes, I don’t always get communication right. It’s not instinctive. It requires constant, conscious problem-solving and decision-making; endless creative workarounds to do what comes naturally to some. Plus, it’s all based on my interpretation of the social world around me, which is often different from that of the people I’m communicating with.
I’m usually operating somewhere outside my comfort zone, and feeling like I’m not quite “doing it right”. That’s pretty much my normal experience.
Now, I joined Dialogue at a pretty turbulent point in my life. I’d started to embrace the reality of being autistic less than two years after my formal ‘identification’, but I was still grappling with what this actually meant (I still am, in many ways).
I was going through a restructure at work (uncertainty! Change! Ambiguous communication!). My mental health was a mess. I wanted to connect with other autistic people, let the mask slip, and not perform quite so much.
It wasn’t that easy.
Bohm Dialogue was unfamiliar to most of us. But what I was completely unprepared for was the level of discomfort I initially experienced. It wasn’t the discomfort of everyday social interactions, but it was discomfort nevertheless.
This was partly anxiety. I worried about whether I was ‘doing dialogue properly’. About how much I was ‘taking over’ the conversation, and how I’d cope with lengthy silences, given how much I talk.
I was mindful of all the occasions people have told me to ‘get on with it’, ‘skip to the end’, ‘get to the point’, ‘stop repeating yourself’, ‘give someone else a chance to speak’. I had all this baggage from years as an undiagnosed autistic person. From trying, with varying degrees of success, to wear the mask, perform the role, of someone who isn’t autistic.
I laid my soul bare. I shed tears. I apologised profusely and often (and for that, I am truly, truly sorry).
But I practised. Listened. Connected with the people in the room, autistic and non-autistic. And whilst initially I felt like I was playing an exaggerated version of my autistic self in this new, unfamiliar space, over time I relaxed. I edged closer to my true self.
And these wonderful people understood and accepted that everyone present, myself included, had challenges, but still brought value. This group was supportive, attentive, compassionate. And we were creating something new.
There’s this term: bricolage. It’s a ‘loanword’ from French. It’s used in the arts, literature, psychology, philosophy, cultural studies. I first heard about it through business and entrepreneurial theory.
It means creating something new from a diverse range of things that happen to be available.
Autistics do bricolage when communicating, or constructing identity. Our true selves get stuck in this ill-defined place somewhere between the component parts from which we’ve constructed our outward persona.
I realised recently just how creative Bohm Dialogue can be. But in interacting with the ‘world’ of the Dialogue space and the people within it, we’ve collectively, and individually, selected or discarded, reconfigured, and progressively built on what has gone before.
The stuff we created existed somewhere between the spaces of its component parts. And this stuff, these ideas, brought about change. Some participants have solved problems and made things happen in their professional practice as a result of Autism Dialogue.
Dialogue has given me new perspectives on teaching and supporting creativity development. It’s been transformative for me personally. I can now own my performances, personae, and masks, knowing my inner self is intact. Sometimes, I even let the mask slip, in non-autistic space (recognising how much privilege I enjoy in being able to do so).
Dialogue is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires practice. It’s uncomfortable at times. But we are all, in various ways, creative, and every single one of us has the potential to create something, and I believe that Autism Dialogue has the potential to really bring about change.