How to Be an Accessibility Ally: Screen Readers

When I first started blogging, I had no idea that there were some simple steps I could take to make my posts much more accessible to my audience. I began adding descriptions to images on WordPress and Twitter and found that it’s really simple. I (naively) figured that most sites must be describing images that way. Then I met my friend Elyana who helped me test run some Voiceover software on my phone and I became painfully aware of how inaccessible most images are on the web.

Elyana has been gracious enough to teach me some basics about creating a more accessible space for visually-impaired and blind people on the internet, and she agreed to do an interview on the subject. I hope that you will take her words to heart and follow some easy steps that make the difference between accessible content and inaccessible content.

Following the interview are some how to visual guides for sighted allies who want to learn how to make their content more accessible. Happy reading!


Accessibility Interview: Elyana Ren

1) What is a screenreader and how does it work?

Elyana: Screen readers give blind and visually-impaired people access to computers, phones, and smart devices. A screen reader is a software program that interfaces with an operating system to render the visual elements (i.e. what’s on screen) into text that is ‘read’ out by a synthesized voice or which can be read on a connected braille display. The screen reader user then uses the keyboard to interact with those elements.

I would like to take this time to point out that, while most screen reader users are blind or deaf-blind, this does not mean that some don’t navigate by using residual vision (with or without magnification software.) Likewise, most screen reader users just use speech to navigate, but many use speech and braille or only braille, in the case of some deaf-blind people. But the concept is still the same: screen readers take what is on screen and present it to the user in a format that is accessible to them.

Note: The following video was created by Sara to give an example of how a screen reader might read text and image descriptions. It is a highly abridged version of what most screen readers can do.

To navigate around a website, for example, the screen reader relies on the HTML code of the page to tell it how to ‘speak’ the elements to the user. Websites tag multi-level headings, links, form fields, buttons, images, and other elements, and screen readers can read that data to the user. If, for example, I were on the Seeking Sara blog, I could hit the letter H and my screen reader will jump from heading to heading, allowing me to scroll through blog titles in the same way someone would scan visually. Once I’ve found the title I was looking for, I can simply use a keystroke to click on it and then read it by either using the arrow keys (like one would in a word document) or using another command to jump from paragraph to paragraph.

The same concept is applicable to screen readers on smartphones and tablets, such as Voiceover for iOS. Basically, when a screen reader is enable on a smartphone, it adds a sort of overlay atop of what is shown on screen so that the user can hear what is under their finger before they click on it. Then, like with letter navigation on the computer, we can use gestures to have the screen reader read out different things, such as headings, words, or characters.

2) What kind of obstacles do you encounter on the internet? What sites are generally inaccessible for you?

Elyana: As mentioned above, screen readers rely on the underlying HTML code of websites to communicate to the user what is on screen so that  the user is able to interact with that content. One of the biggest barriers to accessibility is when things are improperly labeled or not labeled at all. For instance, some sites are completely graphically-driven, meaning that all my screen reader will see and read back to me is a giant image — even if there is text visually on screen. I don’t know enough about web coding to provide exact details on how to fix this, but I have seen enough wonderfully accessible sites to know that it is completely doable.

Another thing that makes navigating sites a little more difficult is videos that autoplay. Not only is it distracting, but screen reader users usually rely on speech output, so it is very difficult to do anything if all I can hear is an ad for the latest game or something. Some web browsers do make it so that you can do a keystroke and it will mute the active tab, but not all of them (as far as I know).

3) What are some of the most accessible sites for you? What do they do that makes the difference for you?

Elyana: The best sites are designed inclusively. This means that they take the time to make sure that everything on their site is accessible not only to screen readers, but also to people with other accessibility needs. This means that everything behind the scenes is properly labeled but also that visual elements, like graphics, background and text contrast, text size, and font choice are also taken into consideration.

4) What is alt-text? What is an image description?

Elyana: Essentially, alt text is a tag someone can add to an image that will make it accessible. I hesitate to call it a caption, because I feel like the trend nowadays is to use captions to comment on a photo rather than describe it. So this is where an image description comes into play. An image description, which is basically what it sounds like: text that describes an image for blind and visually-impaired people, is placed in the alt text field of an image in the HTML code of a website to tell a screen reader to read the description aloud. Otherwise, a screen reader would just read the metadata (i.e. time stamp/file name) of a photo, or simply read it as “image,” neither of which gives us access to said photo.

5) What makes a good image description?

If I’m being honest, image descriptions are so under-used that I get excited when I see any described photo; however, there are certain elements that make a description more effective than others. Some descriptions I have seen are as brief and to the point as “A girl collecting leaves in a wagon,” providing enough of an overview that I can synthesize it with whatever post it is attached to. Some can be longer, such as “A young blonde girl in brightly colored clothing collecting autumn leaves in her shiny red wagon”, which gives me a better understanding of the perspective or mood of the photo. So for me, a good description does not depend upon length as much as it does on helping me understand the aim of the image.

The image in Elyana's example. A young blonde girl in brightly colored clothing collecting autumn leaves in her shiny red wagon.

6) Some people may be hesitant to use certain things in descriptions, such as color. Should people worry about those things? Is there anything you personally don’t want to be in a description?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t want people to feel hesitant or worried about using language that talks about visual things around me — not just in image descriptions but in everyday conversation. For me, color is just another tool I have in my vocabulary of descriptors. So I guess the short answer is: I can’t think of anything I don’t want in a description because anything that can go in a description is just providing me with a deeper understanding of the image.

7) What are some other ways people can make the internet more accessible for visually-impaired and Blind people?

I think one of the things people might not realize is that not all images that are just blocks of text on a colored background are not necessarily accessible to us. There are apps that strip text from pictures, and Facebook has added a layer of accessibility to help parse some memes, but most of them are just an image that screen readers can’t read. One of things that would help is adding a description to those types of images. It can be as simple as typing the text in the body of the post or, in the case of Facebook, pinning a comment to the post in question.

Another thing that is helpful is to capitalize the first letter of every word in a hashtag because screen readers will read each word separately instead of trying to string together all the letters into a mush of phonemes. For example: when my screen reader sees: #allforoneandoneforall” it tries to put all of the vowels together, resulting in me hearing: “alforowndeenodanaforal.” But when the hashtag is written like this: “#AllForOneAndOneForAll,” my screen reader knows to separate out the words, resulting in me hearing “all for one and one for all” as intended.

Final comments from Prismatic:

The last thing I’d like to say is that I appreciate all of Sara’s work to make her content more screen-reader-friendly. I can’t speak for other access needs, or any other blind person, but I am very grateful for creators who go out of their way to ask their audience what they need to be able to participate in their content.

Finally, thank you all for reading this post! I know that it can be a hard thing to remember sometimes, or maybe a hard thing to go back and fix, but really, I just ask that you try to use some of these tips moving forward. I am open for questions or discussion and am happy to provide feedback on your content if you want. I can also provide funny screen reader fails, because they can be pretty awesome!


ABOUT ELYANA

Elyana and her yellow lab guide dog. Yana is laughing with joy as her dog turns to lick her face. Yana wears a green Hufflepuff sweater and a plaid hat.

Elyana Ren is a proud Hufflepuff and unquenchable bookworm. She grew up in the middle of the Pacific, but found herself after moving to the Pacific Northwest. Her works feature the authentic experience of being disabled, neurodivergent, and queer. When she isn’t writing, she uses the creative arts to empower others to trust and love their own voice. Elyana can be found on Twitter @aprismuncovered and on www.aprismuncovered.wordpress.com. If she isn’t there, she is probably in the company of a few good books, her guide dog, and her collection of plushies. Actually, always check there first.


Below are some visual guides created to help sighted people turn on and use image description options.

How To Add Image Descriptions on WordPress

A visual guide detailing how to add alt image text to images on WordPress.
EDIT: YOU CAN ADD ALT TEXT TO FEATURED IMAGES! Go to EDIT–>Featured Image (on the righthand side of the screen)–> After you assign a featured image, hover over the pencil icon to edit–> Add in description in Alt Text box!

How To Add Image Descriptions on Twitter via Computer or Phone

For Twitter’s explanation (without image guide) including Android instructions: https://help.twitter.com/en/using-twitter/picture-descriptions

A visual guide detailing how to add alt image text to images on Twitter from a computer.

 

A visual guide detailing how to add alt image text to images on Twitter from a computer.

Yenn’s Autism Show: Sara Earhart

I recently had the awesome opportunity to be interviewed by Yenn Purkis–Autistic author, blogger, presenter, and advocate. Their podcast is called The Yenn Purkis Autism Show (Formerly known as Jeanette’s Autism Show at the time of recording.)

In this episode, we chatted about blogging, the Autistic community, identity, and more!

Click the link or picture below to be redirected to the podcast! Both open in a new tab. (WordPress isn’t allowing me to embed the podcast here for whatever reason.)

The interview: https://jeanettepurkis.podbean.com/e/jeanettes-autism-show-sara-earhart/

A screenshot image of the podcast player showing Sara's interview. The title reads

Yenn’s links:

Podcast channel: https://jeanettepurkis.podbean.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jeanettepurkisbooks/
Blog: https://yennpurkis.home.blog/
Website: www.jeanettepurkis.com
Twitter: @yennpurkis

We hope you’ll enjoy!

[Featured image description: On the lefthand side is a picture of Sara in front of Niagara Falls. Sara has sunglasses on top of her blue hair, noise-cancelling headphones around her neck, and a plushie duck in her hands. On the right is a blue box with the words “Podcast Interview. Talking about Autistic identity and community, blogging, gender, and more! The Yenn Purkis Autism Show: Sara Earhart” A small drawing of Yenn is pictured in black and white. They have their eyes closed and are smiling widely while holding a framed picture of their apartment.]

Exclusive Interview: Dr. James McGrath, Autistic author

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. James McGrath, senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and author of Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity. James was kind enough to grant me an interview about his fabulous book.

Buy Naming Adult Autism here on Amazon.
Find James on Twitter:@DrJamesMcGrath


SARA: Hello, James! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview about your book. For those readers who don’t know you, can you please tell us a little about yourself?

JAMES: I’m a senior lecturer in Literature and the Humanities at Leeds Beckett University. I was diagnosed autistic in my thirties. In some ways it was a shock, as well as a relief – but I’d always known there was something ‘different’ about most other people. They didn’t seem to need time being silent or being alone each day in the way I did, and their particular interests – sport, television and dating – usually seemed quite odd to me.

My first book has recently been published, and it’s called Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity. It’s an academic study, but is also openly autobiographical at different intervals. As well as the scholarly side of things, I write poems. On and off, I’ve been getting poems published in journals since I was 19. One of the book’s chapters, called ‘Title’, is a three-line poem. The other four chapters are about 20,000 words each but divided into themed parts.

As well as looking at novels, poetry, films and songs involving autism, the book experiments with literary critical approaches to the science of autism, which I’ll say more about later.

SARA:  It’s easy to see that Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity is a truly throughly-researched and work-intensive labor of love. How long did it take to write from envisioning to publishing? 

JAMES: It took me three years and three months from signing the publisher’s contract to delivering the manuscript. But many of these thoughts had been with me since childhood, before I knew the word ‘autism’. It’s not my first publication on the subject, but it is my first book. And Naming Adult Autism is the first time I’ve written ‘publicly’ about autism and my own life.

I love your expression ‘work-intensive labor of love’, by the way! It was certainly very intense. Writing the book became absolutely everything to me. So on good writing days, everything felt great – and on bad days, if I couldn’t properly focus, everything felt terrible.

When I held the first copies of the published book in my hand, I felt good but strange. The greatest highs in the whole experience – in my entire life, even – came in the writing process itself, and in the feeling of just breathing in at the end of a good day with the writing.

A selfie of James, a white man with blue eyes and a beard and mustache. His brown hair is windswept and he wears a blue T-shirt and black jacket. He looks pleased and relieved.
A selfie of James just after sending off his manuscript to the publisher. Victory!

SARA: What was that process like for you and how did you handle any executive dysfunction challenges?

JAMES: Executive functioning – being able to do the things I need to (from major work tasks down to seemingly trivial things like shopping) has always depended on me having a kind of routine. Many autistic people frequently struggle with executive functioning. But if I can settle into a routine, these things become much easier. The problems come for me when routine gets thrown.

The writing took a year to get going, which scared me. The delay was largely because of my struggle with some large, unexpected circumstances. Two days after I signed the book contract, my then-landlord announced I had to leave the attic flat that had been my home within two months, so he could sell it. I was utterly lost, and it’s a painful time to remember. The practicalities of finding a new place to rent, of waiting to find out if I had got the place I wanted, and of packing the chaos of my life into box after box, were catatonically stressful. The most heartbreaking thing was having to say goodbye to a lovely cat called Mousey who lived in the house.

The sheer – I mean sheer like a cliff – personal, practical and emotional upheaval for an autistic adult being forced to leave their home can be unspeakably distressing. And that was very much the situation for me. It took over a year for the disorientation to settle, because the aftermath of the move was almost equally difficult.

A nighttime picture of James' attic haven. The ceiling is slanted and there is a skylight. Stacks of books line one wall, a rack of CDs lines another. There is a bed with bright red bedsheets.
James’ “haven” and home pre-move, an attic flat filled with books and music.

The problem I had was that having moved quite abruptly to a new living space, I just wasn’t settling in to any kind of routine. The light in the room felt wrong, and therefore everything felt wrong. I’d attempt new routines but they just weren’t working. My heart just wasn’t in them.

What I needed was a pattern, a template experience of a day – or even just of, say, a Friday or a Wednesday – which I could enjoy once and then repeat and vary as felt right. But I somehow couldn’t get that to happen. Not having a routine meant having nothing clear to look forward to. But amidst all that chaos, a quietly life-changing realisation occurred for me.

One older friend, a poet and academic who once had been my undergraduate tutor, asked if I would look after his house and cat for a series of weekends while he was away, which I did. With that experience of being in a different space for a clearly set time, routines became more possible – and that was key to how I properly got focused on the book. It was simply a matter of knowing: ‘I’m here for forty-eight hours, and all I’m going to do is write.’ I was thirty miles away from all the usual distractions and in this very atmospheric, sunlit old house with a long garden and a wood cabin at the end, beside the river Skell in North Yorkshire. 

The inside of a rustic cabin, facing the open door to the outside. A computer sits open to James' book open in a Word document.
James’ writing space in the cabin.

In spending weekends in that wood cabin I began to feel calm again. It was what gave me the template for a new routine I could enjoy and which I could – crucially – look forward to. I’m fortunate to have that experience, and I’ve since looked after the house and cat and cabin every summer. Most of the book was written there, as were many poems. It’s also a real delight to have friends come over to the house and cabin in some of the evenings.

I’m glad to say that I’m now much more contented in the space (another attic) where I live, in a shared house with two really good friends. But it did take a long time (and many repositionings of furniture in relation to light and shade) to reach this point.

During university semesters, I tend to get my writing done very, very early in the morning, usually starting at two. I can work that if I go to bed by about eight in the evening. It gives me about five hours of writing time before walking into work, though I can’t usually do the nightwork more than three mornings a week before tiredness catches up, and I start to turn off my alarm in my sleep.

SARA: You yourself are Autistic. How important do you think it is for Autistic people like you and me to be heard and seen, both by allistics and our fellow Autistics?

JAMES: Across psychiatry, society and culture, autistic people have had their critical perspectives and even just their voices ignored for way too long. Even now, although progress is visible, it’s still mostly neurotypicals (or allistics) who exercise almost all the power over whether, when and where autistic people are given a public voice.

Although Naming Adult Autism is frequently an angry book in critiquing the mainstream coverage of autism, the parts within each chapter move increasingly towards more progressive or often more radical texts. There are sequences on work by autistic poets (Les Murray and Joanne Limburg), on novels by Douglas Coupland (who in published interviews identifies as having Asperger Syndrome), as well as on some really valuable novels by authors who, so far as I’m aware, do not identify as autistic (Clare Morrall, Meg Wolitzer).

The most provocative novel dealt with was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I’ve huge respect for Atwood as a writer, so those pages were hard to write. Seeing autism conflated with a pathological opposition to the arts and to fiction itself in a major literary novel was grim – though it did help to galvanize some of the book’s main standpoints.

I wanted to write about some less obvious texts in relation to autism, such as E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End, The Who’s 1969 album Tommy, Ricky Gervais’s The Office, and the Michael Andrews/Gary Jules song ‘Mad World’.

A most important thing, though, was to connect with and reflect on critical writings on autism by #ActuallyAutistic authors, such as Jim Sinclair, Damian Milton, Laurence Arnold, Sonya Freeman Loftis, Dinah Murray, Wen Lawson and Gillian Quinn Loomes.

But despite the rapidly expanding wealth of art and scholarship from autistic people, how often are any of us are given space for expression in the wider media? It does sometimes happen, and I was delighted this spring to be interviewed for BBC Radio 3’s poetry programme The Verb with the poet and academic Kate Fox. Thanks to a genuinely forward-thinking producer in Faith Lawrence, Kate and I were given a space to properly challenge some of the misconceptions around adult autism. But such opportunities are rare.

A screenshot of BBC Radio 3's poetry program "The Verb" episode where James appeared. It reads "Autism: poetry, language, and writing. James' name is circled with an arrow pointing to it.
A screenshot of BBC Radio 3’s poetry program “The Verb” episode “Autism: poetry, language, and writing” where James appeared. Find it here or click the picture. (Credit: BBC Radio 3)

It’s as if the media prefers autistic adults to reinforce existing stereotypes, and that’s something I challenge at length in the book. Autistic adults who question (or even mention) the status quo of, say, Simon Baron-Cohen’s models of autism are actually seldom quoted in the media. Similarly, academic research on autism by actually autistic scholars – despite being peer-reviewed and published – is far too rarely cited in psychiatric publications by non-autistics.

So yes, it’s vital for autistic individuals to be given greater media access: as a human, social right (of course) but also in order to redress the ways in which we have been, and still are, publically misrepresented.

Cultural misrepresentation leads only to further difficulties for autistic people. That’s a main concern of the book. We are expected to be good at science, IT, or nothing. Professionals who influence our lives, and who influence the possibilities of an autism assessment, sometimes fall for these misrepresentations themselves. So I’d love it if some professionals could read the book.

SARA: You note that the “Adult Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test” is skewed (For example, Autistics are not supposed to “get” fiction, according to that test). Can you talk about that a bit?

JAMES: The Adult Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaire is the most widely-disseminated screening tool for adult autism. It consists of 50 statements, with which we’re asked to agree or disagree. The AQ test was launched in 2001 by the University of Cambridge Autism Research Centre (UCARC) after being piloted in the late 1990s.

The test’s principal author was Professor Simon Baron-Cohen: one of the world’s most influential but also most divisive autism researchers.

Anyone with passing interest in adult autism is likely to have seen Baron-Cohen’s questionnaire. It’s widely accessible online and is reproduced in many books, journals, newspapers and magazines. It’s worrying to consider that some people’s knowledge about adult autism probably stems only from reading that questionnaire.

Now, I must emphasise (as Baron-Cohen does) that a high score on this test alone does not warrant actual autism diagnosis.

Crucially though, the test can be used by general practitioners – the gatekeepers of formal autism assessment for many people – in deciding whether or not to refer a patient on to an autism specialist. UCARC’s 2005 report on questionnaire’s validity concluded by advocating its value to general practitioners.

A screenshot of questions 1-14 on the Autism Spectrum Quotient
Screenshot of “The Adult Autism Spectrum Quotient” (AQ) questionnaire (Credit: psychology-tools.com)

But what is less well-known is that in addition to being designed for a practical purpose within widespread medical procedures, the 2001 test was constructed according to a distinct research agenda. It is towards that agenda that certain statements on the questionnaire – and the scoring of their answers – are skewed. Scientifically unsound.

In the book, I go into very, very close detail on several problems with the questionnaire’s design and uses. But here, I’ll try and keep it brief:

  • Professor Baron-Cohen designed the test along with Dr Sally Wheelwright at UCARC. Preliminary tests of the questionnaire’s validity were conducted by the two authors, plus three undergraduates named as co-authors.
  • But as well as being created to ‘measure’ an adult’s autism ‘quotient’ numerically, the other purpose was to test, if not prove, Baron-Cohen’s headline-friendly theory (launched 1997) that scientists and mathematicians show more autistic traits than the general population.
  • The questionnaire is strewn with statements relating to aptitude for STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, mathematics.
  • Each of the questionnaire’s answers that could suggest interest in numeracy are scored positively (raising the respondent’s autism quotient ‘score’). But each statement indicating engagement with the arts (especially reading fiction) is scored neutrally or negatively.
  • So, the AQ defines numeracy as an autistic trait in its own right. Interest in the arts, conversely, is assumed to be the exclusive province of neurotypicals!! Yet, a possible result is that some mathematicians may have higher AQ scores because they are mathematicians – but not necessarily because they are ‘more’ autistic.
  • Meanwhile, an autistic person who happens to enjoy fiction but not mathematics will come out with a lower autism quotient. And there are potential ramifications of these results.
  • In 2001, Baron-Cohen et al reported on the trials of the test: ‘Scientists (including mathematicians) scored significantly higher than both humanities and social sciences students, confirming an earlier study that autistic conditions are associated with scientific skills. Within the sciences, mathematicians scored the highest.’ (Baron-Cohen et al, 2001, p.5)
A screenshot of some of the maths questions on the Quotient test such as "I am fascinated by numbers" or "I am fascinated by dates."
Some of the math-oriented questions on the Quotient test. (Credit: psychology-tools.com)

Yet that just means that mathematicians score higher in a questionnaire that includes statements relating to numerical thinking. The earlier study apparently ‘confirmed’ here was a 1998 ‘Research in Brief’ publication led by Baron-Cohen and based on Cambridge University students, but that study itself was quite sketchy, as explained in the book.

In a 2012, in a TED talk proclaiming that autism may be linked to ‘minds wired for science’, Baron-Cohen implied that this idea was supported by the 1944 research of Hans Asperger. ‘He wrote’, states Baron-Cohen, that ‘for success in science, a dash of autism is essential’. In fact, Asperger said something significantly different.  In 1977 – reporting on the adult lives of his former child patients – Asperger asserted: ‘it seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential’ (emphasis added).

Asperger (1944) remarked on the flair some autistic children show towards maths and science, but in the same paper, described how others showed distinguished abilities in relating imaginatively to paintings and stories. One of Asperger’s most detailed profiles of an autistic person (ignored entirely by Baron-Cohen) describes a boy named Harro.

I wrote about Harro in the book. I think Asperger’s summary of Harro’s reading skills deserves the attention of anyone who believes that to be autistic is to be somehow indifferent to reading fiction:

‘one could notice clearly that he read for meaning and that the content of the story interested him … his reading comprehension was excellent. . . . he could say what the moral of a story was even though the moral was not explicitly presented’ (original emphasis).

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Band Theory standing with his back to the camera, doing highly complicated math at his whiteboard.
Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory standing at his whiteboard doing math. (Credit: CBS)

As demonstrated from novels by Margaret Atwood to a sitcom such as Big Bang Theory – plus countless broadsheet articles citing Baron-Cohen – the association of autism with STEM has become not just a stereotype, but an expectation placed on many autistic people.  Autistic scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences may be a minority – it’s too early to say – but we are nonetheless here.

SARA: I absolutely love fiction; Fantasy and SciFi are my favorite genres! What are some of your favorite fiction titles and genres?

JAMES: I can’t imagine life without fiction. I’ve said it before, but for me, reading novels is a way into the world – a way of learning about people (including myself, when I identify with fictional characters). Reading a novel is far easier for me than watching a film. Unlike with films or TV, we can read at our own natural pace, and that for me makes all the difference.

The bright orange cover of "Gobbolino: The Witch's Cat" by Ursula Moray Williams. There is a scruffy black cat drawn on the cover, looking up at a cartoonish spider.
(Credit: Puffin Books)

Fiction has been deeply important to me since the age of hearing stories before I could read. One of the first stories I remember being delighted by was Ursula Moray Williams’ Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. My sister and I had a tape of it, read by Sheila Hancock.

The novels I wrote about in the book were obviously there because autism itself occupies something like a ‘genre’ in fiction. Even so, in making notes on every page and just immersing myself in the reading, I absolutely fell in love with those novels – especially Clare Morrall’s The Language of Others and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

I don’t tend to seek novels by genres, so much as themes – and houses are major themes in many of my favourite books. I wish it was recognised more often in society, culture and medicine, this thing of how almost unfathomably hard it can be for an autistic person to have to leave what has become their own home. In the book, there’s a footnote called ‘World is Sudden’ (a paraphrase of Louis MacNeice) where I try and address it, but there’s much more to say.

tom garden book
(Credit: Oxford University Press)

One of the most memorable things I’ve read on this subject is from the children’s writer Philippa Pearce, author of one of my favourite books, Tom’s Midnight Garden (from 1958). Philippa Pearce was not, to my knowledge, autistic, but what she said really speaks to me.

In an interview she did with a publishing magazine, which I read in summer 2000, working in a bookshop, Philippa Pearce described how she felt when the mill house in which she had lived as a child was sold.  She said something to the effect of: ‘I had what could be called a nervous breakdown.’

Many of my favourite writers deal with ideas and experiences of home and houses. As a child, the ‘Green Knowe’ series by Lucy M. Boston (based on her own house) really enchanted me. The Green Knowe stories involve magic and ghosts, but it was really the sense of the house as a place and time that I read them for. 

Also on themes and genres, my PhD thesis (completed some years before my formal autism diagnosis) was called ‘Ideas of Belonging in the Work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’. Again, I focused closely on themes of ‘home’ – usually as something that has been left or lost. I also researched and wrote a lot from a social history perspective about the two main houses in Liverpool where Lennon and McCartney grew up. An important philosophical book for me at the time was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

In research and writing at length about autism science in the book, being able to quote from literary authors – mostly poets – was like an intake of oxygen. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley and most of all William Blake were vital to me there. But the most empowering literary and philosophical influence was Simone de Beauvoir’s chapter ‘The Data of Biology’, at the start of The Second Sex. (Before beginning writing this book, I published a playful poem imagining a conversation between Beauvoir and Baron-Cohen called ‘Ventriloquy Soliloquy’, written on my first Christmas day alone in Leeds).

SARA: Chapter 3 of Naming Adult Autism considers the obstacles created recognizing Autistic girls and women. Can you please talk about some of these obstacles?

JAMES: One reason why I’m so glad you’ve asked me to do this interview Sara is because (like many people, clearly) I really admire – and have learned from – your blogging on this topic.

Another author on this who I highly recommend is Lesley BonnevilleA novel I read recently that deals with autism and gender brilliantly is Ta-Ra, Alice: Odyssey on a Shrinking Raft by A. Robertson.  Ta-Ra Alice was published too late for me to write about, but I’ve posted a 5-star review of it on Amazon.

The bright, vividly red cover of "Odd Girl Out" by Laura James. The title is written in huge white capital letters. There are pictures of uniformly positioned mannequins in the background, with one single mannequin posed differently.
(Credit: Hatchette Book Group)

And, as discussed in Chapter 2 of the book, there’s Joanne Limburg’s The Autistic Alice. More recently, Laura James’s Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World. A real highlight of the last few years for me was sharing a platform with Joanne and Laura at the Norfolk and Norwich Literature Festival.

Chapter 3 of Naming Adult Autism is called ‘The New Classic Autism’. Obviously, for something to be both ‘new’ and ‘classic’ is oxymoronic, and I use the term ‘new classic autism’ to underline both the superficiality and, I hope, the transience of a dominant pattern in early 21st-century autism narratives.

Basically, Chapter 3 confronts (and sometimes rages at) how certain wider power structures are shaping both cultural and scientific notions of autism. In most – and certainly the most lucrative – ‘portrayals’ of adult autism, science and culture present us with a white, professional-class, able-bodied male.

In terms of autism and gender, one of the most dubious but still influential models is Baron-Cohen’s much-publicized theory of the ‘extreme male brain’.

There numerous scientific inadequacies to Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain theory. It’s important to unpack these because, although it’s great that Baron-Cohen and the UCARC are now at last placing more focus on women and autism, the ‘extreme male brain’ idea remains an all-too-familiar cultural and even medical reference point.

UCARC’s equation of autism with ‘maleness’ leans very heavily on the idea that autism is fundamentally characterized by lack of empathy. And according to Baron-Cohen, empathy is a female trait while systemizing is a male trait. That’s the crux of how the theory of autism as the ‘extreme male brain’ begins. The assumption being: autistic people lack empathy, and empathy – according to Baron-Cohen – is a female trait. Hence, the extreme male brain terminology. But for now, ‘extreme male brain’ is not a theory: it’s a metaphor. And metaphors, as discussed elsewhere, tend to be what we use when actually there is no clear or affirmative answer.

Baron-Cohen is a key researcher in the Cambridge-based Fetal Steroid Hormones project, publications on which announce links with prenatal testosterone levels and ‘autistic traits’. But actually, none of the people in the research sample were themselves autistic. The autistic ‘traits’ reported in those articles (reviewed in the book) are therefore tenuous.

It’s also noticeable that UCARC’s publications on autism, fetal hormones and biological sex are – like the earlier studies they cite – oddly less interested in the ‘female’ half of the human brain. The research is both quantitatively and qualitatively imbalanced.

SARA: You make a big push for “[…] promoting deeper, greater dialogue between the humanities and the sciences regarding the meanings of autism.” What are some ways we can foster and encourage discourse, mutual respect, and cooperation between the two regarding Autism and Autistic people?

JAMES: It sounds an ambitious aim, I know. But historically, the division between the study of ‘the sciences’ and ‘the arts’ is actually quite recent. I think the obstacles towards such greater dialogue are not intellectual, but merely practical. But they can certainly be overcome. Things like conference panels that welcome research both from the sciences and from the humanities (and social sciences) on autism are very slowly starting to happen, but they need to be much more frequent – and more accessible to the autistic population. 

And also, simpler still – just reading work on autism from other disciplines. So I think this further dialogue is most definitely achievable – provided we’re all willing to take a few risks in reassessing our own disciplinary vantage points. And what’s the point in being an academic, if it isn’t to keep on questioning our own ideas in search of new knowledge?

James, a white male with brown hair, dressed in colorful yellow, blue, red, and black graduation robes. He is wearing a black graduation hat.
James at graduation.

Interviewed by “Learn From Autistics”

Hello all! Thank you so much for your continued support and readership. I truly appreciate all of the emails, messages, comments, and support everyone has been sending my way.

thank you

I’m currently working on two separate blog posts simultaneously on 1) the good side of being hyper-empathetic and 2) the second Sensory Series post. I have also been asked to guest blog on another exciting blogger’s page, so that’s been in the works as well.


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In other exciting news, “Learn From Autistics” had previously reached out to me about doing an interview with them as part of their on-going “Autism Interview” series. That came out on their site this morning!

Some of you have probably already seen the interview if you follow my Facebook page or Twitter, but others rely on blog posts to keep up with my writing, so I wanted to alert those people here!

The interview is titled “Autism Interview #67: Sara on Autistic Identity, Late-Diagnosis, and Socialization.” I was really impressed with the questions and learned a lot about myself when answering them.

“Learn From Autistics” is a really interesting site and blog and they have done a ton of fabulous interviews with Autistic people (I’m #67!), so I encourage you to stick around on their site and check out some other awesome contributors.

See you soon with another blog post!

Sara

A photo of Sara in winter gear at the Sapporo Snow Festival holding a heart made out of ice that says, "Sapporo 2017.2.11".

 

[image description: A photo of Sara in winter gear at the Sapporo Snow Festival holding a heart made out of ice that says, “Sapporo 2017.2.11”.]

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