To put this in context, you can visit the Open University web page where these resources are housed here.
Many people are talking about the BBC’s latest documentary on autism and finding it refreshingly validating. However, the resources that have been put up online by co-producers at the Open University are exceedingly outdated and missing key advances in knowledge of Autistic experience. It is clear that while the documentary itself may be okay, those behind it have learnt very little about the reality of Autistic experience.
The first thing you need to know is that the interactive documents take an obvious deficit based approach. This is evident in the theories they promote and the language used throughout. You can tell a lot about organisations from the way they talk about marginalised communities, and the OU are marking themselves as unsafe and ignorant. Using neurodiversity-affirming language and up-to-date theory is the minimum expectation one can place on an institution that provides degree level training to people who will work with Autistic individuals.
Being more focused, the most obvious issue that stands out to me is the references to Baron-Cohen’s now debunked theory of mind claims. They reference the claim that we struggle to understand the minds of others and understand their feelings as different to ours. This is largely baseless and incredibly harmful. Quoting Baron-Cohen on matters of Autistic experience is like quoting Freud in modern psychology; he is a relic of the past and has not ages well.
I would next like to discuss their claims that Autistic people struggle to communicate and follow social conventions. Even newcomers in the field of Autistic experience become aware of The Double Empathy problem exceptionally quickly. Rather than positioning us as having a deficit in social reciprocity, this theory demonstrates that the issue is one of experience. Autistic people have different cultural experiences to that of non-Autistic people, resulting in difficulties with communication on both sides. Unfortunately, due to the power imbalance in our society Autistic people are labelled as having a deficit and required to conform to non-Autistic communication.
It is not okay that the Open University are upholding this power imbalance.
My final note is that they espouse the view that cognitive behavioural therapy is the gold standard for the treatment of anxiety. Autistic people have been reporting for some time now that due to the double empathy problem and a lack of understanding of Autistic culture and experiences, CBT is more of an exercise in gaslighting than a beneficial treatment for what is a very reasonable response to systemic oppression.
These issues highlight to me the short-sightedness of so-called professionals and academics. You can make all of the wonderful documentaries that you like. If the resources you are sharing are harmful, then your allyship is performative at best.
Society has a long way to go in order to treat Autistic people equitably, but a good first step that will benefit everyone is to consult Autistic voices from diverse backgrounds on Autistic matters. We are not the ones with a deficit. Society is.
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