Kicking Myself: The Perpetuation of Stigma Through Inaction

Two of my favourite bloggers on the subject of Autism have given me pause for thought this week. Yesterday was Mental Health Day. 1 in 6 adults will have a coming mental health problem, and yet there’s still such a stigma attached.

How can that possibly be OK?

It’s not.

Anonymously Autistic raised the point that it takes more than awareness of mental health issues to make life easier; we need acceptance of them. 

  
She’s not wrong. We might all be aware of somebody who suffers with mental health difficulties, might know the name of their condition, but do we know how to make them feel comfortable being themselves? Or do we expect them to hide their struggles, to fit in with the norm? Being aware just gives us labels…but it doesn’t make it easier for the people living with those labels. 

Moreover, as kids, we quickly learn that it’s an insult to call someone a spaz, a retard, a psycho. We know what those words really mean, but their currency is in the power of the insult. We have an awareness of difference – the weird kid in class, the tramp in town – but we don’t know what it’s like to be them. And those insults – that acceptance that it’s OK to mock mental health – stays with us.

For example, Tim from The Pathless Woods backs this up to a report of an open letter from a sister calling out the vile stranger who though it OK to mock her autistic brother in a supermarket.

Again, how can that possibly be OK?

Again, it’s not.

But as a society we have an awareness that mental ill-health exists, but we have an acceptance that it’s OK to mock people who suffer. 

It’s not.

  
But it’s so insidious. Who hasn’t called someone “crazy” or “insane” even with affection? Who didn’t avoid the odd kid at school for fear of being ostracised by association? Even without insulting a stranger in a supermarket, whose allowed the stigma of mental health to be perpetualted having stood by whilst derogatory comments were bandied about? 

I have to hold my hand up. I’m guilty of allowing mental health to be stigmatised.

I kick myself for not having the balls to call people out.

I kick myself for not befriending the girl with Downs Syndrome who was assigned to our class dressing room for a dancing show. I kick my 8-year-old self for not telling the popular girls off for teasing her when she didn’t understand what their words implied. I kick myself for being mean by association.

I kick myself for recoiling along with the other kids at primary school as Alan stormed along the corridors, full of rage. I kick myself for being needlessly dramatic in the face of a kid who just needed help.

I kick myself for not standing up to the customers of a coffee shop for their snide comments of a busking tramp. It would have been embarrassing to stand up so publically, but would have been more embarrassing for them to have their shameful behaviour laid out in front of them.

  
I kick myself for allowing “Autism” to be a punchline for an experience of rudeness on Facebook. Getting prissy with “I really don’t think that’s acceptable” isn’t going to help, but neither does letting it slide.

I kick myself for the post a friend put on Facebook of her experiences at comic con, of how her son’s laughed as they came up with increasingly ridiculous questions for a very enthusiastic exhibitor. Someone who was possibly Autistic and obsessed with their specialism. She made it OK for her kids to laugh at people with niche interests, people who find it difficult to socialise, people outside of the norm. And I kick myself for not calling her out. 

I kick myself for not telling the director and the sales manager at work to shut the fuck up and show more respect after they made retard noises about a client with learning difficulties.

I kick myself for not holding myself together or being able to give a clear explanation of Autism when the National Trust woman wanted me to discipline my son better in the middle of a meltdown.

  
And there must be more times. Occasions that have seeped from my conscious memory. Which is possibly even worse as I don’t carry the shame that I should do. And if it’s not shameful to allow people to be miserable then it’s surely a further indication of how accepted it is to be derogatory about mental health issues. Of how the stigma is perpetuated.

Well, that’s NOT acceptable. 

Acceptance should be for people to feel free to be themselves, not a society-shaped version of it. (Society’s ideas of what’s OK is fucked, so why should we listen and conform?) 

Let’s not just be aware of the conditions encompassed by mental ill health; let’s be aware of the people living with those conditions. Let’s accept those people and their needs, not spurn them as ‘other’ and something to distance ourselves from. Let’s make it acceptable for someone to admit that they’re struggling. Let’s accept our own culpability for the current lack of acceptance.

I’m fed up of kicking myself. I’m fed up of the stigma that forces people to hide themselves and allows others to set a derogatory dialogue. I’m fed up of allowing a world to exist that makes life for one in six people to be made harder through lack of acceptance. I’m aware that I need to change.

PS Re: the tramp in town. A couple of kids had far greater balls than me and took time to get to know the man behind the local rumours. Watch their video here: The Enigma of Juggling Jim.

A Cow Amongst Sheep

“So, SP, do you want to do some work now?”

“No.”

Thus went school yesterday.

But the teaching assistant did ask…and SP is never anything but honest.

He’s also not one to be swayed but what others are doing. It’s not just that he’s a black sheep amongst the class flock; he’s a  cow!

  
At the moment it’s cute and endearing, but I’m not really how long this will hold sway. An obstinate 4-year-old is one thing; but a defiant 15-year-old? Undoubtedly by some point he’ll be less likely to get his own way and get into trouble.

In which case I can’t help but feel that mainstream schooling isn’t in his best interests long-term. Can a system that likes things done in a particular way meet the needs of someone so intent to do it his own way? But the nearest ASD-specific schools are so far away. I’m not sure what’s more likely to change: SP or the local authority’s realisation that there’s a need for accessible support and tailored education. Both are the definition of stubborn.

But when SP wants to do it, it’s all there. He’s taken in everything taught whilst he’s shielded his ears on the carpet; he knows how to form letters, even if he refuses to pick up a goddamn pencil; in passing conversation he’ll thrown in some maths.

After piling up the daily homework sheets for 3 weeks, SP finally decided he wanted to tackle them all in one hit. Ok, he has no interest in picking up a pencil, but his letter formation (“round the face, down the hair and give her a curl” is how they learn to write ‘g’ these days apparently) and phonics sounds were spot on. He rattled through them. And again. And again and again and again. When he’d done he gathered the sheets and threw them in the air. “Surprise!”

You’re not kidding! Too right I’m surprised.

When I showed a video of this to his class teacher she laughed. He mimicked her perfectly. “He’s happy to sit during the sessions but he won’t speak. But he’s obviously taking it all in.”

I think they were also surprised that he actually joined in with everything in PE today, rather than sticking to whichever piece of apparatus he likes the most. So much so, he’s got Star of the Week. (Again! And he’s only been there for five weeks!

It’s been a good week for SP. I don’t expect him to comply with everything the same way an NT child would: he doesn’t have that need to please others (which is by turns infuriating and refreshing). But thankfully, right now, his school are thinking along the same lines. Which is just as well as SP getting along, albeit in his own way, makes for a far happier time for him and thus a far easier time for everyone else. And that’s what I hope for most: for him to be happy going about things in his own way.

If only society would see that the cows are just as good as the sheep. Things would be a lot happier and easier all round.