To Norman Lamb: Ways to Actually Help Autistic People

The Lib Dems’ health spokesman, Norman Lamb, is normally pretty good. On mental health, especially, he’s done an extremely good job. But yesterday he co-authored a piece about autism that falls into almost every trap.

The reasons for this can be found in one sentence early on: “As a politician with a particular interest in autism, and a parent of an autistic child, we have come together to set out a simple plan of ideas”. Note what’s missing there. This is written by a non-autistic politician, and a non-autistic parent campaigner. No autistic people were involved or consulted at any stage — they forgot the most important rule: “nothing about us without us”.

It doesn’t help that the non-autistic “autism campaigner” is the parent of an autistic child. The interests of autistic people and the interests of their parents can be, and often are, very different. And while there are good neurotypical parents of autistic children (I know several), there are far more who think their own interest in having a “normal” child overrides their child’s interest in being allowed to live their own life.

When thinking about autism, in this respect, it’s best to think about homosexuality in, say, the early 1970s, when it had recently been legalised and societal attitudes were much less tolerant than they are today (which is not to say that homophobia is non-existent now, of course). A majority of parents of gay children, then, would have wanted a “cure” for their child — even those who genuinely loved their children would want that.

The “autism campaigner” in question is a particularly bad example of the “autism parent”, though. When confronted by actual autistic people — many of them experienced campaigners and researchers themselves — he refused to acknowledge even the possibility that he might be in the wrong about anything, or that autistic people might know their own needs better than he did. He was patronising and abusive.

So it’s not a surprise that that piece, which according to its opening paragraphs is about autistic people’s difficulty getting work, completely ignores things that might actually help in that. The only mention of autistic adults *in the entire piece* is:

Transitions to adulthood are a vital area where much more needs to be done. There is very little information on whether children find it easier to work in certain professions (for example ones where routine and structure is required).

That’s it. *Transitions* to adulthood are important — because they involve parents. Note the tell in the second sentence there — “little information on whether children find it easier to work”.

Unless this is an anticipation of the government removing child-labour laws post-Brexit, it says a lot about what they actually think matters. Of course all autistic people are “children”. Of course we are. We don’t matter once we stop being a burden to parents.

In comparison to that one mention of autistic adults, there are eleven mentions of the word “parent”.

It should be borne in mind here that the *vast majority* of autistic people are adults, not children. While we die much earlier than the general population (often not from any physical illness, but from suicide caused by societal attitudes towards us — autistic people are nine times as likely to commit suicide as neurotypicals), that still means that we spend more time as adults than we do as children.

But this focus on parents is the reason for the worst of the recommendations in this piece — “Early diagnosis and intervention enables small changes to be made before behaviours become so ingrained that they are almost impossible to change.”

What this is talking about is “Applied Behaviour Analysis”. This uses Skinnerian behaviourist psychology (a widely-discredited approach which denies that people have any interior life at all) to try to change children’s behaviours. Or, to put it more simply, it’s punishing children for being autistic until they learn to act like they’re not.

As with anything, there are opinions on all sides of this (and I say this because I *do not speak for all autistic people* — just for more of us than a “parent campaigner” ever will), but I only know of one person whose opinions on autism I respect who thinks there is even the possibility of anything good about this, and even then only in very limited circumstances. The vast majority of autistic self-advocates consider it child abuse, plain and simple. It’s exactly equivalent to “gay cure therapy”.

Even if you don’t go that far, though (and again, the vast majority of autistic self-advocates do), the Lib Dems’ constitution says, in its very first sentence, that our purpose is to build a world where “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. ABA is the epitome of enslavement by conformity.

And not only is it abusive in itself, by instilling the idea that you should react in the way that neurotypical people around you want or expect, rather than according to one’s own emotions, it makes autistic people *much* more vulnerable to abuse by others. If you’re punished every time you say “no”, your capacity to refuse consent is taken away.

So, if the solution to autistic people only having a 17% employment rate isn’t child abuse, what *would* help? What possible solutions could there be, if even punishing children for not smiling doesn’t work?

Well, I’m an autistic adult who has held down jobs for most of my adult life (I’m currently freelancing, but spent the last twelve years in continuous employment). My recommendations will only help *some* autistic people, because they’re based on my own experiences — the challenges I’ve faced in my time as a software engineer or a technical author will not be the same ones that an autistic plumber or bricklayer would face — but they’d be a good start.

My first recommendation is a universal basic income. This would, of course, benefit more people than just autistic people — but then as with most accessibility and rights issues, one tends to find that improving things for disabled people also improves them for not-yet-disabled people.

Even if we manage to triple the employment rate for autistic people — an absolutely massive result — that would still leave almost half of us unemployed. Yet the whole ethos behind our current benefits system is about getting people into work. For autistic people who are not suited to the world of conventional work — probably a majority of us — this leads to benefits sanctions and, for a lot of people, just not getting any benefits at all.

Theoretically, disability benefits should cover this, but for those autistic people who are not formally diagnosed (which is the majority of those with no comorbid learning disabilities, as the waiting list for diagnosis is essentially infinite — the “normal” wait for an adult diagnosis is two years, but you only get that “normal” wait if you keep putting pressure on the overworked diagnostic services. Most autistic people are incapable of applying that kind of social pressure, and so just don’t get diagnosed if they weren’t as a child — and almost no autistic people over the age of thirty or so had any kind of diagnosis) it’s essentially impossible to claim those benefits. A basic income would stop us falling through the cracks.

Second: massively more funding put into diagnosis. The diagnostic tests themselves only take a very short time. There is no reason there should be *any* backlog at all on this. While diagnoses are in some senses unimportant — they don’t, after all, lead to any kind of “cure” — they can be vital for people who now at least know *why* they’re different, and can help mental health enormously.

Third: ban open-plan offices open-plan offices are bad for everyone — they cause high blood pressure, stress, cardiac problems, and increased transmission of infections. But they’re especially bad for autistic people, who don’t have the neurotypical ability to ignore our surroundings. For many of us, they’re essentially torture chambers. They don’t even provide the efficiency savings to employers that are their main justification — they tend to lower productivity, rather than raise it.

Fourth: Strengthen flexible working rights. One of the better things the Lib Dems did in government is to give people the right to request flexible hours and working from home. But that’s only a right to request these things, not a right to be given them. The default should be that unless employers can demonstrate an *overwhelming* business case, working from home and flexible hours should be an employee’s basic right. This would help those autistic people who simply can’t be around other people for extended times, or who have sleep conditions which force them to keep odd hours.

Fifth: Ban interviews and “culture fit”. Job applications should be anonymised, and people judged only on their ability to do the job, not on how well they fit into a corporate culture. This would also help with people discriminated against due to gender, sexuality, race, and class. Similarly, “attitude problems” and similar should not be grounds for bad evaluations.

And finally get rid of ‘professional appearance’ standards. Many autistic people have sensitivities to texture that mean we are unable to wear certain fabrics or some styles of clothing. Others are unable to shave, or to wear certain cosmetics, or in some cases to have their hair cut. Unless someone’s job is actually to serve customers, dress and other matters of appearance *should not be a consideration in their job*.

There are many more things I *could* suggest, but those would do for a start. But the most important thing of all, as I’ve said — If you want to know what would help us, ask us. Not neurotypical “campaigners”, not eugenicist organisations that want to get rid of us. *US*.

Just ask. We will tell you.

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(This will *attempt* to be non-spoilery, but there’s probably no such thing as a spoiler-free review of a film like this, so beware).

Before I start, a confession — I have not read “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

I know, I know, bad literary SF fan. Chiang is the acknowledged modern master of SF short stories, and “The Story of Your Life” is one of his greatest works.

But printzines are hard to get hold of unless you make a real effort, and so I didn’t read it on its initial publication, and have somehow never got around to reading it. Which means that I can’t, in this post, analyse how the film relates to the short story in the way that, say, Abigail Nussbaum (shorter Nussbaum: it’s a very good film, but misses some of the points of the story to its detriment) or Peter Watts (shorter Watts: it’s a very good story, but the film improves on it while keeping all the main points) have.

(My own view, assuming what they say about the main character’s daughter’s cause of death in the short story is true, is that this moves the choice the protagonist makes at the very end of the film from being one that makes her seem truly alien and emphasises her changed nature, to being one that reflects the kind of choices that all too many people have to make every day. In the story, as described, the daughter’s death could have been prevented and wasn’t, while in the film her death could not be prevented once she was born with the rare condition from which she later dies. Whether one considers this an improvement or a ducking of the question is, I suspect, a matter of taste).

What I *can* say is that this is one of those *very* rare SF films that actually gets at what I want from science fiction — and, indeed, from fiction generally.

Normally, you can separate science fiction films into three rough groups. The first, and by far the most prevalent, are the space adventure stories — Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy, Alien. For these, “space” is a set of textures and environments, in which stories about goodies and baddies fighting can play out with no regard to plausibility. These can be good, bad, or indifferent, but have nothing to do with what I, at least, regard as the point of science fiction as a genre. (They have a *lot* to do with what the Puppyfascists regard as the point of science fiction, though…)

There’s a second, much smaller, group of films which one might regard as “hard science fiction” — The Martian and Gravity are the two most recent examples of this I can think of. In these, a protagonist is placed in a situation in which they have to use their science and engineering skills to get themselves out of trouble, and the science is usually plausible enough. These are close to the version of science fiction that was promoted by John W Campbell and his acolytes in the 1940s through 60s.

And there’s a third, even smaller, genre — the semi-mystical first contact story. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three of these — 2001, Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Arrival is in many ways a hybrid of the latter two types of film, and keeps much of the best of both. Aliens arrive, and do so in order to change humanity’s way of thinking, ushering in a new age — but the narrative of the film concentrates on the process by which communication is established. The protagonist is a linguist, and manages to convey a lot of the process of translating an unknown language (actually, thinking about it, “an unknown script” might be a better phrase, in more ways than one), and her mathematical-physicist colleague equally conveys a lot about the processes of mathematical thinking.

Even better, though, the point is made several times that what is being conveyed is an oversimplification. I laughed when the protagonist replies to a question from the military about the difficulty of communicating without a common language with the single word “kangaroo”. This was followed, when she asked to elaborate, by an explanation of the famous story about Captain Cook asking an aboriginal Australian what that animal is and getting the answer “kangaroo”, and no white settlers discovering until much later that the word meant “I don’t know”.

But then, once the soldier asking the question had left the room, the protagonist admits to a colleague that the story isn’t true, but served to make her point.

This is actually a brilliant piece of writing, which works better the more I think about it. The initial use just of “kangaroo” flatters those of us in the audience who know the story, and gets an easy laugh (and I suspect would also get a laugh from those who *don’t* know the story, because of the apparent randomness). The story itself then illustrates the potential pitfalls which have to be avoided later in the film, while the acknowledgement of the story’s mythical nature not only signals to the audience “this is an oversimplification, not the real thing, but the basic idea’s right”, but also signals to those of us who were sat there fuming in our own pedantry thinking “any competent linguist would know that isn’t true” that the film knows what it’s doing (as does the character).

That scene does an *immense* amount in a tiny bit of dialogue — maybe twenty seconds’ screen time, and there’s a lot more like that. After reading this piece by the scriptwriter on the process of adapting the story, I *really* wish his book on screenwriting was available on any platform other than Kindle (I don’t use Kindle. I want to read that book.)

The result is a film with a very filmic emotional through-line, one where the protagonist’s emotional changes and how they affect her life are central to the whole thing, but one that really deals with ideas in a way *very* few films, let alone SF films, do. Where most SF films will hinge on a climactic laser battle, this one hinges on the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

Many of the ideas will, of course, be very familiar to at least some of the audience (anyone who’s read anything Alan Moore ever wrote, for example, will probably have explored the ideas of predestination, free will, and alternative perceptions of time in a universe where the future is immutable, to at least the same extent as the film does). But the fact that this is a film that dares to be about ideas at all, that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence even slightly, and that portrays intelligent people who actually have a life of the mind without turning them into pop-autistic sociopaths played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a minor miracle.

It’s not a perfect film, of course. Pretty much everything is shot in shades of light blue and blueish-grey, as appears to be inevitable in films these days. Note for directors — other colours exist, including such popular favourites as yellow, brown, and pink. No-one will actually refuse to see your films if you include them.

More egregiously, my wife tells me that the audio description for visually impaired people actually *lied* about when in time some sequences are set, which for a film as nonlinear as this is a pretty major shortcoming.

But for those like myself who like their science fiction to be *about* something, and ideally about multiple somethings, the problems with the film can easily be dismissed. It’s easily the most intelligent SF film of the last twenty years (that I’ve seen), without sacrificing spectacle, emotional engagement, and the other things that mass audiences respond to. HIGHLY recommended.

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So What Comics Should I Review This Week?

Going to the shop on Thursday this week, as I was laid low with a bout of apathy. List of new releases is here.

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Monkee Music: Second Edition Kickstarter

For those who are interested, I’m Kickstarting a second edition of my book on the Monkees. The main changes, if it happens, will be a complete revision of the chapter on Pool It!, a new chapter on Good Times!, chapters on Davy’s pre-Monkees solo album (and some of Nez’s pre-Monkees material), and discussion of the additional material on the Present and Instant Replay box sets, with other things as stretch goals.

As always, Patreons will get this free, but backing from anyone else would be nice too.

(This won’t affect the next Beach Boys book, which will be out before this)

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Thoughts on the Richmond Park By-Election

So, last week, the Lib Dems won the Richmond Park by-election.
Some context for foreigners, or those who don’t follow politics very much — the Lib Dems were, until about ten years ago, a formidable by-election fighting machine. We didn’t do well in general elections, but give us a single local seat to fight, and we would do much, much, better.

That had changed, though, by the time I joined the party in 2006, which was the last year we’d gained a seat in a by-election. And the last year we gained a seat *from the Tories* in a by-election had been in 2000. As a result, and given the poorer-than-expected result in 2010 and the utterly catastrophic one in 2015, 2006 was the last year we made net gains in Parliamentary representation.

Until last week, when new Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney overturned a majority of 23,000 in Richmond Park.

I give you that history to provide some context as to why, to Lib Dems at least, this is worth noting.

The first thing to note about it is that this makes the calls for a “progressive alliance” seem much more valid than they did even a month ago. Both the Greens and the Womens’ Equality Party decided not to stand (the former in return for us not standing in a couple of council seats they’re targeting in the next council elections) and both parties’ leaders came out to campaign for Olney. MoreUnited — a group I have been pretty brutal about in the past — actually did something useful, backed Olney, and got a hundred volunteers out doorknocking and leafletting.

Even Labour, who did put up a candidate (and a candidate who campaigned explicitly as an anti-Lib Dem one, rather than an anti-Tory one), got involved — there were many Labour members who campaigned for the Lib Dems in what they knew was a seat that was unwinnable for Labour, and the final Labour vote was lower than the number of Labour members in the constituency. Apparently the decision to put up a candidate at all was one imposed by Labour centrally, rather than by the local party…

(Similarly, though, there was a regressive alliance, with both the Tories and UKIP backing the former MP, Zac Goldsmith, who had stupidly resigned to stand as an independent over a point of principle, forgetting that this was a principle (not expanding Heathrow Airport) shared by all his opponents…)

Now, the point of this isn’t that the Lib Dems are automatically going to win everywhere from now on — there’s another by-election this week where we’ll be lucky to come fourth. Richmond Park, while it had a substantial Tory majority, was in many ways as straightforward a choice as it gets. On one side was an “independent” backed by both the Tories and UKIP (a party fast heading towards outright fascism), a billionaire’s son with an obscene fortune, who supported Brexit in one of the most Remain-leaning constituencies in the country, who went to Eton, whose only job before becoming an MP was as editor of a magazine his uncle gave him as a present, who had spent ten years avoiding paying more than half a million pounds a year in tax, and who had a few months earlier run a disgracefully racist campaign to become London Mayor. On the other side, a woman who’d been to a comprehensive school, who was backed by the Lib Dems, Greens, and Women’s Equality Party, and who has actually had jobs that weren’t given to her by her uncle, and who has never used images of terrorist atrocities to smear a Muslim opponent.

So this was a very clear-cut case. There will be other, much less clear-cut, cases where “progressive alliances” make less sense. There are, after all, a lot of Lib/Lab marginals, Lab/SNP marginals, and so on. There are also very real differences in policy between the various parties that might be categorised as “progressive”, including on some of the most crucial issues facing us.

But what this suggests is that local, constituency-based, collaboration between parties *can* work. What kind of collaboration that can be would depend very much on the constituency. In some constituencies that might involve some parties stepping aside for each other — for example in Brighton Pavillion, the Lib Dems, who came fifth last time and lost their deposit, might stand aside for Caroline Lucas to ensure the Greens keep their one MP, while the Greens might stand aside in return in Torbay, where *they* came fifth and lost their deposit, and support the left-wing environmentalist former Lib Dem MP, Adrian Sanders, who lost by a tiny margin.

In other seats, such collaboration might be more subtle. In a Labour/Tory marginal, for example, the Lib Dems might still stand a candidate but not campaign at all. That might, in some cases, actually be better for Labour than the Lib Dems not standing — there are a number of centrist and centre-right small-l liberals who will choose the Lib Dems over the Tories, but who would vote Tory over Labour (no, I don’t understand why, but they exist in relatively large numbers). Taking those votes away from the Tories, while giving Labour a clear run at squeezing the left-liberal vote, would actually give Labour a better chance.

All of this, though, would have to be done at a local level, and without any consideration of formal country-wide pacts, or it just wouldn’t work. The Lib Dems need to be able to attack Labour in the North of England (where Labour are the right-authoritarian establishment party), and the reverse is true. The Greens need to protect their identity as an environmentalist party, and not be swallowed up in Labour’s “movement”.

We need to keep every party’s identity separate. There are *many* Labour MPs I’d like to see out of Parliament — just not if they were replaced by an even worse Tory.

But something like this needs to happen if we’re not to have another right-authoritarian Tory majority government at the next election. Remember that the terrible electoral system we have is biased against the Labour party, though not anywhere *near* as much as it is against the smaller ones. Only three Labour leaders have ever won majorities — Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair. The first took the Second World War to get in power. The second and third were after periods of thirteen and eighteen years, respectively, of Tory rule, and required some of the most inept, stupid, lazy decisions ever made by a government in order to dislodge a Tory majority.

The lesson of Richmond Park, though, is that even in that terrible system, local, concentrated, specific collaboration can allow the forces of progress to defeat the forces of reaction. Now we need to replicate that.

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Comics Reviews up for Patreon Backers

This week with two weeks’ comics, reviewing Wacky Raceland, Jughead, The Unworthy Thor, No Angel, Goddamned: Before The Flood, and Groo: Fray of the Gods.
The comics review posts are free to Patreon backers.

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Me Elsewhere

I wrote a review of Philip Purser-Hallard’s excellent Devices trilogy for We Are Cult. I wrote it while in a semi-comatose half-delerious state when I was ill, so I assume James (the editor) has edited it slightly to make it be in English rather than a strange language only I know…

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