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  • Cork Autism Conference

Autism as a "Fruit Salad" with Donna Williams

Author, public speaker and autism consultant, Donna Williams RIP described autism as a “fruit salad” in which various components and differences combine to make no two people the same.

“To understand any person’s autism, you have to understand the pieces of the ‘fruit salad’ that came together to mentally develop, challenge or derail that particular person in a whole range of areas,” said Donna Williams

She advised to look beyond the label and focus on the person. “This person is a person first and, yes, they happen to have a condition, but never lose sight of their own character, their own personality, because if you lose sight of it, they will too,” she said.

“If you turn them into a case, their identity will fall by the wayside. Get out of your head all the ideas, the assumptions and stereotypes that would block you from clearly seeing the ‘fruit salad’ that is in front of you.” she advises.

“Because (different) strategies and approaches are going to unlock development for that person.”

She highlighted the importance of managing our assumptions, saying: “One of the important things is to presume competence. Don’t presume incompetence. Remember that people don’t always have to know, in order to do.”

The world of an autistic person can look very different to that of a non-autistic person. Donna said: “I saw my world in bits, so I got the ears of the cat, lost the head. Got the head and lost the body.”

At the age of 28, Donna was able to see the world in a new way because of tinted lenses, which helped her to cut down on the amount of incoming information.

“Seventy percent of incoming information is visual and we take in our visual information as light frequencies, essentially as colour.”

“When you use tinted lenses, you are filtering out an amount of incoming visual information (which) leaves your brain more time to catch up and to process what’s left.”

As a result of using these lenses her language processing has dramatically improved, as well as her ability to “simultaneously process a sense of self and others”.

She explained,:“Yes, we can talk a lot about what’s wrong with people with autism, but I prefer to talk about how can the non-autistic world adapt to autistic processing, so that the autistic person is not compelled as consistently to have meltdowns and have to invest in self-protection mechanisms that end up costing a lot in their development.”

To understand autistic individuals, Donna said: “We should also learn how the autistic person is communicating through their behaviour or is communicating through their patterns.”

A lot of autistic people can experience sensory overload and not be able to filter the level of information coming in. This can result in confusion, and a complete sensory overload.

To manage this, Donna recommended supporting the autistic person to find a physical or auditory rhythm. She said: “If you start one and slow it down…….it’s something the person’s body and brain can tune into. And you see a lot of autistic kids trying to self-regulate like this.”

"They will do the bobbing, they’ll do the rhythm stuff or they’ll do the flapping thing. Just trying to give their body a bit of consistency, a bit of rhythm.”

She also stressed the importance of activities like dancing, swimming, trampolining and cycling - anything that can create a body-brain relationship. Donna advised to work in parallel with the autistic person and not be in the person’s face.

Donna Williams sadly passed away from Cancer on April 22, 2017. The above writing is extracted from an interview our founder Micheál O’Mathúna did with Donna in 2015. More from the interview will be published soon.

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