I’m not sure how to start a blog as I’ve never written one and I don’t read any, but I suppose some background information might be useful. Several years ago (I’m now 29) I was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (the artist formerly known as Asperger’s). To start off with, this news was not terribly important to me – it affected my parents, especially my mum, far more. She had suspected for some time that ASD may have had something to do with my difficulties growing up, but it had never really been pursued as I was passed around the mental health services. Finally, there seemed to be an answer, an explanation of sorts, but because I was an adult there weren’t really any systems in place to offer any specialised advice. But proving the adage that sometimes it’s not what you know but who, my dad happened upon a contact at one of the charity boards he sits on; she was the CEO of the Donaldson’s Trust, formerly a school for the deaf, but which was branching out into becoming a centre for ‘neurodiversity’ (the latest and most fashionable kind of diversity). A meeting was set up…
Fast forwarding 18 months or so, my main contact at Donaldson’s is Billy, the personalisation manager. Billy sends me papers or articles on various aspects of ASD and asks me for my thoughts as, I suppose, some kind of autistic elder. I don’t know why Billy values these ‘thoughts’, but he is most insistent that he does, and in return I get to come along to Donaldson’s every once in a while to see what they’re up to. On one occasion, this involved tagging along to a meeting with a PR firm (very exciting!) to talk about how to rebrand the Trust as what is hoped will become the national centre for neurodiversity. During this meeting, four key organisational values were settled on: compassion, creativity, honesty and dignity – four values that surely should be integral to any organisation dealing with the potentially vulnerable (as we all are). And, true enough, in all my interactions with the staff at Donaldson’s these traits were readily discernible; what I wasn’t expecting was to find these same attributes already mirrored in the young people they take on.
Walking into the Donaldson’s common room was a not entirely new experience for me. I was in hospital in my teens and it quickly felt familiar: friendly adults (no white coats), people nattering away, getting on with their own things, but dipping toes in and out of the conversation as they liked. The kids were drawing on iPhones, listening to music, making sandwiches, and these are some obvious examples of creativity. But if creativity, ultimately, is about how you perceive, interpret and communicate with the world, there was plenty of that subtler imagination on display too; it was there in how the staff discussed and made suggestions about the little stories that bubbled up from the kids, gently (and often humorously) revealing different ways of looking at things and strategies for dealing with problems.
Compassion, really, stems from imagination, trying to put yourself into someone else’s situation and imagine how you might feel – and a lot of people probably still associate ASD with a lack of emotion and the ability to empathise, but that’s not what I saw enacted. One girl mentioned her fear that something bad would happen every three years after a number of deaths in the family. She wasn’t mocked, but drawn out into discussing it honestly, finding compassion from her peers as well as well as the staff. What I saw and heard repeatedly was people being treated with dignity and respect, modelled by the staff and taken up by the kids. The key values of Donaldson’s – creativity, compassion, honesty and dignity – are not superficial virtues it pays lip service to; these qualities are absolutely integral to its ability to support young people with ASD and engage with them successfully – which is what I saw in the common room.