Amplified, Episode 8: David Gray-Hammond

Amplified, Episode 8: David Gray-Hammond

In the eighth episode Ginny Grant interviews David Gray-Hammond, an Autistic and mental health advocate and activist. 

Transcript of Amplified: Autistics in Conversation with Reframing Autism, Episode 8: David Gray-Hammond 

[Music intro: “Winter is here” by Elliot Middleton for Premiumbeat, a delicate piano melody which creates a hopeful mood] 

Ginny: Hello and welcome to this episode of Amplified: Autistics in Conversation with Reframing Autism.  

I’m Ginny Grant, an Autistic advocate, writer, and Reframing Autism’s Communications Manager. I am the host of this podcast and today I’m thrilled to be chatting with Autistic and mental health advocate and activist, David Gray-Hammond. Just before we get started, I’d like to provide a content warning that in this episode David and I will discuss mental illness and addiction.  

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which I’m recording this podcast today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Reframing Autism extends our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.  

For those of you who are new to this podcast series, Reframing Autism is an Australian-based not-for-profit organisation which is run by and for Autistic people and their families and allies. It is dedicated to creating a world in which the Autistic community is supported to achieve acceptance, inclusion and active citizenship. And we are all about nurturing and celebrating Autistic identity. 

[Music continues briefly] 

Welcome to Amplified, David! Would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?  

David: Um, yes. I’m David Gray-Hammond. I run the Facebook page Emergent Divergence. I’m an Autistic mental health and addiction advocate. I’m a writer, public speaker, advocate, activist. I’m also a professional working with Autistic young people and, soon, hopefully, to be an author as well.  

Ginny: Great, thanks for that, David. Let’s start with your Autism journey. Could you tell us a little bit about when and how you learned that you’re Autistic? 

David: So my mother was trying to get professionals to take me seriously from a very young age, like when I was a toddler. It was very clear that I was Autistic but the professionals disagreed. My mother had significant training in and around recognising Autistic people, but they told her she was an overanxious mother with too much knowledge of the subject. So ultimately, I actually didn’t get diagnosed until I was twenty-six years old, six months sober from active drug and alcohol addiction. And yeah, that was … that was when it really became a reality for me, like, I’d been pretty sure up to that point but it was … it was kind of like a revelation when that diagnosis was made, and it was made quite quickly because the professionals they put me in front of for the assessment were sort of of the opinion of we don’t know how this was missed for twenty-six years. And uh, yeah, that’s how I … how I learned for sure that I was Autistic.  

Ginny: Can you tell us about how you came to understand and accept your Autistic identity? 

David: Uh, yeah. So truthfully, when I was first diagnosed, I thought being Autistic was the reason for everything that had gone wrong in my life. I thought being Autistic was responsible for my addiction, my mental health problems, and I really wasn’t too comfortable with being Autistic. You know, I’ve started admitting this publicly, but there was a time where if someone had offered me a cure I might well have taken it. But I started learning about cure culture, and I came across a thing called miracle mineral solution which I won’t get into the details because it’s quite … it’s quite triggering. It’s a fake cure that does a lot of harm. I was absolutely outraged and I wrote an article about it called “Please stop trying to cure my Autism”, and a fairly prominent activist within the Autistic community who campaigns around this subject found my article and sent me a message and added me on Facebook. And from there I was sort of brought into the fold and I interacted more and more with the Autistic community. And the more time I spent in the community interacting with other Autistic people, the more I came to realise there was nothing wrong with me; I’m not broken. I’m not some maladapted version of a neurotypical. You know, it’s like in The Ugly Duckling story; I discovered that I was a swan and not just an ugly duckling. And, yeah, if it wasn’t for the Autistic community I don’t think I ever would have truly accepted that I’m Autistic and been comfortable with that, but the more I … the more time I spend in the community … even now, I’m learning new things about myself that make me love being Autistic even more. And that’s not to minimise the struggles I have, you know. There are aspects of being Autistic that – especially because of the way society is set up – that can be quite disabling, but all in all, I owe my wellbeing and my acceptance of my Autistic self to this community … to the Autistic community. 

Ginny: Definitely. So why did you decide then to become an Autistic addiction and mental health advocate? 

David: So, as I said, I was diagnosed about six months after entering sobriety from drug and alcohol addiction and all through my treatment for drug and alcohol addiction I was very aware that it didn’t feel like it was set up for me, and I didn’t really know why, and then I got diagnosed Autistic and it was very clear to me that that had something to do with why treatment services didn’t really fit me well. And then, as I learned more about being Autistic from the community, it sort of solidified this thought that actually services … mental health services … addiction treatment services, they are not designed with Autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people in mind. They are designed with a very particular privileged group in mind. And … yeah, I … I looked around the community and I was looking for resources written by other Autistic people; there weren’t really any out there. So I decided, well, if no one else is going to talk about this, I will. And I started my little blog, emergentdivergence.com, although back then it was just emergentdivergence.wordpress.com ’cause I didn’t think it was going to go very far, to be honest. And, as I wrote, more and more people started to listen, and more and more people started to pipe up, saying hey, do you know what? I’m Autistic, I’ve had issues with this as well, and I really like what you’re saying. I feel really validated. And it encouraged me to keep writing. And the more I wrote, the more people wanted me to come and talk to them. Like, I was doing consultations, I was being invited to speak on livestreams, and all of a sudden I … I was in quite high demand. And … yeah, fundamentally, though, what drove me to get to that point was I wanted to be the person that I had needed ten years ago, because I often wonder what my life might have looked like if I’d had another Autistic addict alongside me saying, “hey, do you know what? I get it, it’s not your fault, and I’m here with you.” And I want to be that person to someone else.   

Ginny: What role does the Autistic community play in your wellbeing as an Autistic person now?  

David: My wellbeing is deeply founded in the Autistic community. I … I need the Autistic community around me to … to feel safe, to feel part of something, because in the rest of society I’m made to feel like some kind of interloper, like … like I don’t belong. You know, like I’ve stowed away on someone else’s ship and the Autistic community has always been a place where I’m accepted, I … I’m still … you know, people will challenge me, you know, not in like a rude or aggressive way, but they challenge me to grow and evolve and I love that, because I think we all have to be challenged to grow and evolve. But the Autistic community helps keep me sober; it keeps me … it gives me a purpose, you know, helping people and interacting with people in the community gives me a reason to stay on my medication, to stay away from drugs and alcohol. You know, I … I’ve gone from being someone who really didn’t know whether they were going to survive to someone who has a reason to live, and … and that’s what the Autistic community has done for my wellbeing.  

Ginny: That’s fantastic. So, in terms of the Autism and mental health advocacy and activism work that you have done, what would you say you are most proud of?  

David: I mean, I’ve done a fair few things now, but I was particularly proud of the mental health conference that I helped Reframing Autism and Aucademy put together. I thought that was really important, hearing all those voices of Autistic people talking about mental health and wellbeing. That … that I really enjoyed doing that work and being part of that. I think it helped a lot of people and I love helping people.  

I’m very proud of my blog. You know, I put a lot of effort into making sure that there is good information out there, you know, based on my experiences. You know, to date I’ve written on just my personal blog about … there’s about 102 articles on there. A few of them have been written by guest writers, but most of them are either written solely by me or cowritten by me and other people.  

The most recent one that I’m particularly proud of was when I took part and helped run the Boycott Spectrum 10K campaign. For people who don’t know what Spectrum 10K was … is, it was a £3 million study that was asking for the DNA of Autistic people, but they were making no guarantees about the safety of that data and it was … it became quite evident that there was a high potential for it to be used for eugenics. And myself and several other activists and advocates banded together. We cowrote a joint statement that I think was about thirty pages long, explaining every … every concern we had about the study. We went to protest outside the research centre in Cambridge. We were all over Twitter tweeting things and calling people out on, you know, inappropriate things about the study, and the study was paused as a result because the health research authority in the UK listened to our concerns and said, actually we need to investigate this. It … it was … it was an important moment because it was Autistic people standing up and showing that actually, we want to be treated ethically, we want to be included in research about us, and we have voices, whether they’re the voices they expect or not is something to be seen, but, you know, we … we didn’t stay silent and I’m really proud of all of us for that.  

So, that’s … that’s some of the stuff that I am most proud of.  

Ginny: What are some of the messages about addiction that you are keen to impart? 

David: So, one of the main messages about addiction that I want people to take away from my work is that if you are experiencing active addiction yourself, it’s not your fault. Society puts this moral judgement on us, trying to make us feel like we’re a waste of space or a waste of resources for being addicts, and that’s wrong. I haven’t met an addict who’s not dealing with some kind of trauma, which really leads me on to the next message that I want to send with my work, which is that, you know, the war on drugs is actually a war on traumatised people, because addicts are criminalised and mistreated, and what you’re actually doing is punishing someone for suffering and that’s wrong. And ultimately, the biggest thing I want to do, and I think it’s starting to happen, is to show people that Autistic addicts exist. This myth that Autistic people don’t experience addiction ’cause we love rules too much, you know, is absolute rubbish. So many of us are either going through active addiction or in recovery from addiction. Some of us don’t identify as addicts, and that’s okay, but we’re still substance users, and we self-medicate. You know, there is a wide spectrum of … of, you know, substance use in the Autistic community. And it’s important that people know that Autistic substance users exist, because when we stay silent about this, when we don’t speak out, when we don’t advocate for ourselves, that’s when people lose their lives.   

Ginny: Sure. What do you hope to accomplish through your advocacy and activism into the future? 

David: I hope to … One of the big hopes I have is for treatment services around the world to consider how they treat neurodivergent addicts. I would like the treatment rights of Autistic people to be recognised. I would like us to have access to the spaces that are going to help us. And I would like the people working in those spaces to treat us with dignity and respect. So many of us are just told that the way we are is wrong and that we need to be something else, and that’s by professionals who are supposed to be helping us and it’s … it’s not right. I also hope in a broader sense to move towards what Dr Nick Walker would call a neurocosmopolitan society, a society where no one neurological group is treated with privilege, where everyone has access to society, where … where people live alongside each other without suffering, if possible. And I know that’s a big dream, but, you know, where are we going to get without dreaming big, you know? Sometimes we have to imagine a utopian world to know what we’re aiming for.  

Ginny: Thank you so much, David. It was such a pleasure to talk to you today. And thanks to our audience for listening to this episode of Amplified. Please do listen in next time.  

If you’re not already part of our social media communities, please join us online. You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. We also have a website – www.reframingautism.org.au – which has a treasure trove of Autistic-created resources. Thank you! 

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