Marion McLaughlin and Flick Goodhall, Autistic Storytelling

  • Webinars

| 29 Jul 2022

| belonging, community, double empathy problem

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In this webinar, Marion McLaughlin and Flick Goodhall discuss the power of Autistic storytelling.


Marion – Hi, everyone, and welcome to our webinar on “Autistic Storytelling,” and thank you so much to Reframing Autism for giving us this lovely opportunity. We’d like to introduce ourselves, let you know who it is that you’re speaking with today. My name is Marion McLaughlin. I am the CEO at Autism Understanding Scotland. I’m a late diagnosed Autistic woman. I was diagnosed, formally identified, three and a half, nearly four years ago, and I’m also a professionally trained storyteller. So a long, long time ago, I used to work for a children’s library where I was trained in how to do storytelling, and I have a background in teaching as well, where I spent an awful lot of time storytelling to my classes and training other teachers how to do storytelling as well. Hello, Flick. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Flick – Yeah, I am Felicity, or Flick, Goodhall, and I’m the Senior Autism Practitioner at Autism Understanding Scotland. Like Marion, I also was late diagnosed Autistic. I didn’t get my formal diagnosis until earlier this year, and writing has always been really important to me, actually. I used to write a blog about Autism, and having an Autistic family, and I’ve written a couple of different novels now, the most recent one centred around an Autistic main character. Not published or anything, so yeah. Hence “hobbyist.”

Marion – It’s still very valid. Still very valid. It’s all part of that. So, what do we expect today? So today, Flick and I are gonna have a discussion around the importance of Autistic storytelling. We’re gonna have a talk about how we support it as an organisation. At Autism Understanding Scotland, Autistic storytelling is really, really important. And we’ll have a little chat about what it means to us personally, because I think Autistic storytelling is something that really has quite shaped our lives in an awful lot of ways, too. I think that’s fair to say. Oh, sorry. So, shall we have chat about… So why does Autistic storytelling matter? We really do have very unique lived experiences, don’t we?

Flick – Yeah, definitely, and it’s interesting, because there are often common themes across a lot of Autistic people’s lived experience and stories, but then with their own unique spins on it as well.

Marion – Yeah, and I think an awful lot of the time, when an Autistic person is storytelling about themselves, it really is a good way of really helping us to figure out the world around us and make sense of things, and especially if we’re doing storytelling around something that’s happened to us that day, then it just helps us to really figure out, “what on earth has happened to me today?” “How do I feel about it? How did I react to it?” “How am I gonna deal with that next time as well?” So it really does… It helps us to make sense of everything, doesn’t it?

Flick – Yeah, and making sense of other people’s motivations and things as well, when you’re… Yeah, constructing that past event in a storytelling framework, then, I think it really helps, then, doesn’t it? To figure out, “okay, so why did that other person react like this, and why did they say that?” So it’s really helpful from that perspective too. As well as just channelling our imagination, because Autistic people… How creative are Autistic people? There’s this misconception that we’re not creative a lot of the time, but yeah, so many Autistic people I know have amazing imaginations. It’s really, really-

Marion – I mean, one of the things that we do as an organisation is organise Autistic Pride annually. And for a couple of years before the pandemic, we were able to put on the art displays with some really, really beautiful artwork by Autistic people, including your good self, Flick. And it was this wonderful way of dispelling that myth. And I think Autistic storytelling is another way of doing that. If you’re reading anything by Autistic people, we’re seeing something that they’ve created. It’s really difficult to argue that we don’t have an imagination after you see that. And I love how it allows us to explore our special interests as well. I mean, seeing Autistic storytelling and using these really, really important interests, to us, these big passions in our lives, it can be a really fun way, can’t it?

Flick – Yeah, to channel all of that energy and that passion, absolutely. As well as, yeah, validating our own lived experiences as well, which is just so important, because so many Autistic people feel out of place in the world. So getting that validation as well, telling other people your story, and then hearing back as well some of the same experiences that you’ve had, it’s a really good two-way street, isn’t it?

Marion – Oh, definitely. And I think, as well as helping us to feel really validated, it does help, whenever we are sharing our Autistic stories, that it means that it can help other people to understand where we’re coming from. And I think as an organisation, that’s a large part of what we do, isn’t it? It’s all about helping people to understand what it’s like to be Autistic, understand different brands of Autism. So when we can share a personal story, I mean, it’s one of the big things that we hear from whenever we do training, isn’t it? The personal stories that we’re able to share, either with permission from friends, family members, and service users, or from our own lives, really bring to life those lived experiences, don’t they? And it makes it much more real for people. And it really is that… Sorry, you were about to say, weren’t you?

Flick – Yeah, no. It is. It’s an expression of empathy. And again, there’s this misconception that Autistic people maybe can’t feel empathy, which is just a nonsense, and so much of what we’re doing when we do the whole storytelling thing is expressing that empathy for other people, for what they were going through. Along with that validation, it’s that mirroring back as well. We share stories to show that we can empathise with people by giving examples from our own lives that are similar, and it’s like making those connections, isn’t it? With other people.

Marion – Oh, it absolutely is. It’s such an important thing to do, isn’t it? And I think whenever we’ve been considering Autistic storytelling, one of the things that we’ve been thinking about is, what are some of the key themes that we hear, or that we’ve recognised? And this is by no means an exhaustive list, by any stretch of the imagination, but so much of Autistic storytelling is autobiographical, isn’t it? It’s us sharing our own stories for an awful lot of the reasons that we’ve already had. So a lot of it is seeing very young Autistic people growing up, or getting through adolescence, and then finding themselves in adulthood, isn’t it?

Flick – Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, again, that fits in quite well with that theme of otherness as well, exploring how it feels to be a bit different, maybe be on the fringes, not quite fit in with the majority. And we see that coming up again and again and again, don’t we?

Marion – And then this is something that you see in so many movies and TV shows and stuff, that so often, the main character, it seems to be someone who is different from the pack, who is different from everybody else, and really talking about how their differences make a difference to the other people around them as well, don’t they?

Flick – Yeah, and then because of that, that search for belonging that comes from that because of the otherness as well, you see that just all over on all sorts of films and TV shows, in novels, in just the stories that we hear from service users every day.

Marion – Yeah. Oh, definitely. And it really is quite something. So many people talk about finding a home whenever they’re finding the Autistic community, or whenever they’re finding people that really support them, and it really is so, so huge. And I think that’s where a lot of self-acceptance really comes from as well, because for many Autistic people, we spend so much of our lives feeling like we’re heavily criticised, and if we’re not being criticised by other people, then we’re criticising ourselves. And a lot of that journey, whenever you’re an Autistic person, is a journey to self-acceptance, and this is something that you and I have actually written about quite a few times, I would say.

Flick – Oh, definitely. I mean, it does… It just comes up so much, because I think when you do have that maybe internalised ableism going on when you just didn’t know who you were, it is very hard to love yourself for yourself. So reaching that self-acceptance is really big. And I think that, again, that feeds, really, into the fact that we often have strengths in our differences. It’s not just the negatives. It’s not just the struggles that actually… Yeah, we can bring things to the table that other people can’t, that we have our own unique strengths, don’t we?

Marion – There’s so much more, and this is something that we do see, as an organisation, quite a lot, that Autism is much more than the sum of our difficulties. There’s the sum of our strengths as well. And very, very often, Autistic people succeed because we are Autistic. And this is something that we do see as a common theme. And I think that sometimes, you do have to be careful that you don’t run into inspiration porn kind of territory whenever you’re doing that, but there are an awful lot of really good, positive differences about being Autistic, and Autistic storytelling is a really good way of exploring that. But it’s not just those strengths that we explore, is it, Flick?

Flick – It’s, yeah, no. Unfortunately, most Autistic people do have a trauma background, so an awful lot of our storytelling does centre around that trauma, doesn’t it? It comes up an awful lot, actually.

Marion – And I think Autistic storytelling, an awful lot of the time, can be a really good way of processing that trauma. And it’s definitely not the only way to process it, and a lot of the time, it really shouldn’t be done in isolation with that if you’ve got trauma. It’s really, really important to get some proper help as well, but it enables you to really examine what happened, why it happened, what you can take from that, how you can protect yourself, what should be happening next, all of these different things. And I think as well, whenever you’re able to read about other people who have had really similar experiences to you, again, that goes back into that validation, doesn’t it? It’s not just me that’s experienced things.

Flick – Yes, I’m not alone, actually. There’s a whole community of people who have these very similar experiences to me, and that’s really important. But as well with the trauma and everything, another difficulty that often crops up is that intersectionality, isn’t it? Because we’re not just Autistic in isolation of any other characteristic we may have, are we?

Marion – Yeah, I know. And I think, even… We often talk about being Autistic and presenting as female, being Autistic and being nonbinary, being Autistic and being part of the LGBT+ community, being Autistic and living in Scotland is very different from being Autistic and living in Australia, I’m sure, in an awful lot of ways. We do quite a lot of work with the BME community as well, and there’s a huge amount of intersectionality there. And whenever you’re looking at the cultural expectations, all of these things are really, really important. So I think that it’s very important that there’s a space for Autistic people to be talking about this intersectionality. What is it… Sorry, go on, Flick.

Flick – I was just gonna say, and also the fact that through storytelling, we can demonstrate this intersectionality, because for so long, there was a very stereotypical view of what an Autistic person looks like. It’s that white, middle-class boy, and anybody who didn’t fit into that mould wasn’t recognised as Autistic, whereas I think it is largely through that storytelling that we are starting to recognise and see a wider recognition that Autistic people come in all different forms, all across the world, and actually, we’re not just that one stereotype.

Marion – That’s just the one stereotype that’s been most studied. That’s it, yeah. And I think the more that we have that storytelling about the intersectionality of Autism and all these other aspects, the better our understanding of Autism really is, isn’t it? You can’t understand Autism without exploring intersectionality. But we also had to think about how Autistic people actually go about sharing our stories as well, ’cause there’s an awful lot of different ways. If my computer will move on to the next slide. There we go.

Flick – Aye!

Marion – I know. It’s nice whenever it works. So many Autistic children that we’ve worked with at our organisation do love to narrate the day’s events to ourselves. And we’ve had some parents say, “I don’t need to ask my child how their day was. They go up to their room, they’ll narrate the day. I can sit outside and I can hear what happened.” But sometimes narrating the day’s events to ourselves, or just to others, just sitting down with our partners at the end of the day, sometimes that is Autistic storytelling, to be honest. That’s sharing our lived experience, isn’t it?

Flick – It is, yeah. It absolutely is. Narrating them, sharing them, with other people. And then also retelling familiar stories as well, but often with our own little twist, because, yeah, we have that creative flare as well, quite often, so there’ll be that slight difference or that slant or that way of viewing something seemingly familiar through a different lens.

Marion – I do know a certain young Autistic chap who will really enjoy maybe a movie or a TV show and then ask their parents to write out the story, but with their own spin on it quite a lot. And it really is quite joyful that they get to read back their own work. And it’s not just “Operation Ouch!” which is a popular TV show for kids. It’s their version of “Operation Ouch!” It’s their story that’s based around this, and it’s so much fun. I think that’s a really important thing about it is sometimes, Autistic storytelling can just be an awful lot of fun, can’t it?

Flick – Oh, yeah, definitely. I think that, yeah, we get lots of enjoyment from it. I mean, it makes sense that that kind of evolution from telling stories around a fire or something, I think humans in general have a really strong instinct to do so. And then for Autistic people, again, in the way that we share personal stories to empathise with people, as we said earlier, that’s often how we show, “yes, I understand where you’re coming from”, “I’ve experienced something similar”, “Look, here’s my personal story to share with you”.

Marion – “I’m on your wavelength.”

Flick – Yeah, it’s a way of connecting with other people.

Marion – Oh, definitely. And I think written print materials is really important as well. I don’t know how many books you have that have been written by, or had Autistic input in your house. I have a lot.

Flick – Yeah. A lot.

Flick – And not all of them may be diagnosed Autistic as well, looking back through historical fiction and things as well, but yeah.

Marion – Yeah, and I think that, yeah, a lot of us do use written print materials to either share our autobiographies, or to share fictional stories, or to do a bit of a mixture of both. So that could be in newspapers. We’re seeing an increasing number of people in newspapers talking about their own lived experience. We’re seeing even more people self-publishing and writing their own books and things as well. And it really is important to be able to get them out there. But all of the social media, I mean, every bit of social media that you’ve got, there is Autistic everything, isn’t there?

Flick – Oh, absolutely. Every platform has Autistic storytelling going on, whether it’s Facebook or TikTok or Twitter. You can definitely find those examples on all of them. And actually, that is a big way a lot of Autistic people do come together with other Autistics. It’s something that comes up a lot with service users is, “I discovered my Autistic identity by reading these pages, by watching this YouTube channel…” Yeah, all the social media and everything.

Marion – Oh, absolutely. And I think it’s been really key in spreading the word that Autistic people are here, that we are learning about ourselves, that we’re supporting each other, that we’ve got a lot to share as well, hasn’t it? It’s been really important. And blogs, I mean, you used to keep a blog, didn’t you?

Flick – Yeah, yeah. And at the time, I knew several other Autistic bloggers as well, doing the rounds too. And again, there was a whole community there of people sharing their stories and commenting and giving really good support, actually, as well.

Marion – Yeah, and it’s so important, that, isn’t it? And again, it’s part of that finding the community too. TV, I think, still has a ways to go, I think that’s fair to say, but we are seeing, now, more Autistic actors coming in to play Autistic people in TV. And I actually think Australia’s doing pretty well in terms of leading the way in there, would that be fair to say?

Flick – I think so, yeah. And I think, as well, we’re seeing more non-stereotyped Autistic characters where they’re not all necessarily white, they’re not all necessarily presenting male. We’re seeing a good… Starting to see a good range. We do, we’ve got…

Marion – A very long way to go.

Flick – Long way to go, yeah.

Marion – Very long way to go.

Flick – But we’re getting there. It’s improving.

Marion – It’s the beginning of a journey. I think that’s fair to say, yeah. And I think visual arts is another way. As I’ve said, we’ve shared lots of artwork and photography by Autistic creators as well, and some of that really is a beautiful way of expressing their Autistic lived experiences, and their emotions, their feelings, all of that too.

Flick – Yeah, and comics and things as well. Very, very common.

Marion – Ah, the comics.

Flick – Yeah.

Marion – Yeah. Now I’m thinking about all the comic books that I want to read that have got Autistic characters and things in them as well. But it really is quite an important thing that it’s not just, you pick up a book that’s written by somebody who’s Autistic. There are many, many different ways that we can access Autistic storytelling. I think it’s really important to remember as well that all of this is emotional labour for us, especially if we’re telling something that does talk about a traumatic background. Even whenever it’s a really good emotional story, it’s still emotional labour, isn’t it? So it’s really important that we value these examples of Autistic storytelling, because they’ve cost a lot a lot of the time, haven’t they? Even whenever it’s done really well. But how do we support Autistic storytelling as an organisation? So at Autism Understanding Scotland, we do quite a few things, don’t we?

Flick – Yeah, I mean… Yeah, I think it weaves into almost everything we do in some way or another, but one of the main ways is just by listening to Autistic people’s lived experiences, whether that’s through our one to ones, whether that’s on our social media, but just that listening, giving them a space to tell their story, is hugely important for a lot of people.

Marion – And not being the tone police when they’re doing it, because I think a lot of Autistic people, especially when they’re first joining the Autistic community, can really worry about that sort of thing. So encouraging them to have a voice and to listen to other Autistic people is really, really key. But that validating, I think, is so very important, isn’t it? And I think whenever we’re able to say to somebody, “I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve had really similar experiences too”. It then encourages them to feel confident enough that they can share a little bit more, and they’re gonna be taken seriously, and that we’re gonna be there for them, that we’re gonna understand where they’re coming from. And our webinars are something we’re doing increasingly, I would say.

Flick – Yeah, more and more webinars. And yeah, again, we often share stories, with permission. It might be from our service users, from family members and friends, but also from our own lived experiences in the webinars. And then we often have time for questions and answers at the ends as well, where we, again, hear Autistic storytelling from some of the participants too.

Marion – So powerful. On our social media every April, we run our Autism Acceptance campaign, which is something that we, in true Autistic fashion, we spend most of the year thinking about and not actually writing until it gets to April… The end of March, the beginning of April, and then we have that mad panic. But it’s something that we do really enjoy that we’re able to use that social media so that we can share these little bits and pieces. We’ve also, in October 2021, we were absolutely delighted that we were able to share copies of “Just Right for You” by the lovely Reframing Autism’s Melanie and the beautiful artwork by Josephine Celeste Art. We managed to obtain funding thanks to Union Square, which is our local… Ugh, local shopping mall. They gave some funding so that we could share out books to all of the primary schools in Aberdeen, and we’ve been able to send them out. We’re really hoping we’ll be able to expand at some point.

Flick – I even have my copy just here next to me.

Marion – Excellent. And as part of that, we did a big storytelling session where we invited all the schools in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to come along. I think we ended up with over 200 children coming along. But we actually have a picture of one of the storytelling sessions that we do. So we have offered that we are… Now, all the schools in Aberdeen have got them. We have offered that we’re happy to go and do a virtual storytelling session. We have a beautiful picture of you doing storytelling at a local school.

Flick – Yeah, which was just lovely, and it’s so nice because it really involves the kids. They get to hear that Autistic storytelling, and they get an opportunity to ask some questions, and we can get them all flapping and stimming, and yeah, which is just beautiful. Classroom full of kids. And I think that that’s really important as well, because it gives them an easy way in to the topic of Autism, a good way to actually discuss it, and understand, and empathise, so it’s really beautiful.

Marion – And it’s normalising those Autistic lived experiences, those Autistic expressions, isn’t it? Which is really nice. And I have to say, seeing so many children sitting, flapping their hands all together with each other, a moment I will never forget. But Autistic storytelling, I think it’s fair to say, has shaped both of our lives quite a lot. How would you say it’s… I mean, as your blogging has been enormous for you, and your writing.

Flick – Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And like writing about Autistic characters has allowed me to explore my own Autistic lived experience, as well as some family members and friends. And it’s a really good opportunity to think about the common experiences, think about some of the ways in which we differ, and just really… Yeah, explore a lot of those themes that we’ve already spoken about today.

Marion – Yeah, and I think I remember, growing up, and there are a lot of Autistic coded characters that you might see in TV, and maybe… Autistic coded superheroes in particular for me were an absolutely enormous thing. Autistic coded characters in “Star Trek,” for example, for myself, were absolutely huge. And seeing these characters trying to make sense of the world around them was something that I could very, very much identify, trying to understand these human beings, which just seemed to baffle them on so many occasions. And then seeing the humans, seeing these non-autistic people trying to explain where they’re coming from to the Autistic coded characters really was enormous. And I think it was, whenever I was searching about whether or not I was Autistic and trying to learn about my Autistic family members as well, being able to read work by other Autistic people was the first time I actually felt heard in my life, on a really deep, emotional level, in a way I’d never done before, which was a really profound experience, I think.

Flick – Yeah, it is. It’s just, when you’ve spent your whole life feeling like you’re maybe missing something, feeling a bit like an outsider, just being confused by a lot of your day-to-day interactions… Yeah, getting that validation and seeing your experiences onscreen or in print is just, yeah. It’s so profound. It is. It really is.

Marion – Yeah. I think, as well, I mean, it’s something I’ve said in a few of our other webinars. I think before I found other people telling their authentic Autistic lived experiences, I went from thinking that I was a bit of a loner weirdo to being a weirdo with a community. And after 39 years of being quite happy with that identity, as being just very by myself, and then suddenly finding all these other people who were so remarkably like me was incredible. And had it not been for Autistic storytelling, I’m not sure how much I would’ve gotten out of Autistic burnout, and whether or not I would be able to place the boundaries in my life and give myself the supports, the sensory supports, and things that I need. So Autistic storytelling for me has made a really incredibly positive impact.

Flick – Yeah, it can be life changing, genuinely.

Marion – We probably wouldn’t be here without it, to be honest, would we?

Flick – No, I don’t think so.

Marion – Not doing this job, anyway. So we have a couple of places that Felicity and I have done some of our own Autistic storytelling, for anyone who might be interested. So is the website for our organisation. And on there, we’ve got lots of information about what it’s like to be Autistic, and we do share quite a few examples of our own Autistic lived experience. And the other one, Flick?

Flick – So the Different Minds Campaign as well that the Scottish government has been running, and they have a lived experience section as well on their website, don’t they? Which is really, really good, because that gives anybody who wants to access it the opportunity to go and actually read those Autistic stories, and to really listen to our lived experiences.

Marion – And I’m hoping that there’ll be another one up from me in January 2022 once I’ve managed to finish writing my own Autistic storytelling bit. So, there we go. But as an organisation, we always love putting in some key takeaways. I think it’s the primary teacher in me. But we really want people to realise that Autistic storytelling is a vital tool. It really is an incredibly important thing, and for anybody who is working in the… So sorry, the sector, for anybody who’s supporting Autistic people, for anybody who is Autistic, for anybody who has Autistic family members, friends, loved ones, it really is very, very important, isn’t it, Flick?

Flick – Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, it promotes that self-acceptance and validation, as we’ve discussed. It really does. It’s so important.

Marion – Yeah, and there are so many different mediums in which it’s done, so there is gonna be a way that’s gonna suit everybody. So if you prefer watching videos, if you prefer something that’s like 15 seconds long, if you prefer something that’s short, sharp, bullet pointed, if you prefer great, big blocks of text, if you prefer something really visual, there is a way that you can access Autistic storytelling. Because as a community, we are so diverse. There’s so many different ways that we want to share these stories too.

Flick – Yeah, absolutely. And it does mean different things to different Autistic people, that storytelling, what we get from it, but I think common to all of us is just how important it actually is to our lives.

Marion – Absolutely. Well, we wanna thank everybody so much for coming along and for listening to Felicity and I today. We’ve had tremendous fun having a think about how much storytelling really means to us, and we hope that it means an awful lot to you too. And thank you for your attention.

Flick – Thank you.

Marion – Bye now.


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