Cork woman is busting society myths about autism

Ahead of a conference, called AUsome, in Cork in February, MARTINA O’DONOGHUE talks to the organiser Evaleen Whelton, about her autism diagnosis as an adult and the challenges and obstacles people face
Cork woman is busting society myths about autism
Evaleen Whelton. AUSome conference organiser. Picture: Lucie Al Portraits

WHEN is the last time you had a conversation with an adult who has autism?

While conversing with Evaleen Whelton, I considered that perhaps I never had. Yes, I had spoken to several parents of children with autism, as well as those working in the autism education sphere. There was always somebody speaking for them, I realised.

Which is why Evaleen’s forthcoming AUsome conference in Cork is so important, given that every speaker and participant at the event will be someone with autism.

There were many things I learned while I chatted to Evaleen. One is that she doesn’t advocate the term ‘with autism’, preferring instead to refer to autistic people.

“It’s my identity”, she says firmly. And so, for the remainder of this article, that’s the term to be used.

For Evaleen, a mother of one who lives near Bandon, that identity was only officially confirmed four years ago as a fully grown adult. But when did she suspect she could be autistic?

“Ah sure, I was always a bit weird,” she laughs. “For me it was always trying to fit in. I’d be masking; a lot of autistic people do that. It’s pretending; you copy other people so you’re not noticed. It takes a lot out of you.

“As an adult, I’ve been teaching autistic kids and I always ‘got’ those kids in class and wondered if I was a bit like them.”

Her autistic traits would have been apparent during her own school days but were either misunderstood or overlooked.

“Primary school was lovely. I had the same teacher for three years and I was top of my class. It was more in secondary school that the difficulties came. I hit 12 and the social side of things became a problem. I spent most of my energy trying to fit in with people who probably didn’t want to be friends with me anyway — or who wouldn’t ever have been good friends. I was just not ‘getting’ stuff. And because I was academic I suffered being called a swot. I was hearing that all the time so I stopped studying.

“There were things I probably should have been allowed to do, like stimming; that’s when we use our hands all the time when talking and we clap our hands when excited. It’s a way we process stuff. We need to move to learn. It’s muscle memory. If I was in my class I’d be drawing on my book to help me concentrate but my teacher told me to stop, basically.

“I’d get headaches from the fluorescent lights and the sheen off the blackboard. The colour blue in a room gave me headaches. I’d be quite sensitive to lights and colours.”

Did her parents notice anything?

“No, I was just who I was”, she says.

Although food was an issue, so mealtimes weren’t too straightforward.

Evaleen Whelton, AUsome conference organiser. Picture: Lucie Al Portraits
Evaleen Whelton, AUsome conference organiser. Picture: Lucie Al Portraits

“I still don’t eat vegetables”, she explains.

“A lot of autistic kids would have a beige diet. My mom just made my dinner and then made everyone else’s. It’s not a problem for me; it’s problem for other people that you meet. They’re obsessed with what you’re eating! People call us fussy or picky eaters and that’s not helpful. It’s not a choice for us.”

Alarm bells were ringing into adulthood for Evaleen: “When I was pregnant a lot of sensory stuff bothered me. Being a new mom, I thought ‘how do I play this role?’ I’d been a pretend person to fit in all the time. I couldn’t just be a mom; I’d have to be the perfect mom. That’s the pressure I’d put on myself. I got really compulsive about everything being in order.

“That’s anxiety; that’s how we control our environment. Autistic people are anxious all the time. It’s the pressure to perform; to be someone different all the time.”

The official diagnosis came when her daughter was aged one. How did Evaleen feel when hearing the news?

“Delighted. It was like a relief. It gave me a massive understanding of who I am and why I did stuff. It gave me permission to not be so hard on myself and it lifted the deep shame I had for not knowing how to work the social situations.”

Happily, her husband also had a beautiful response. “He said: ‘Those are all the reasons why I love you’, and ‘I always said you were one in a million’.”

Evaleen, a drama teacher and founder of Konfident Kidz, is frustrated by the amount of ‘misconceptions’ and ‘myths’ relating to autism that exist in society — and she’s keen to set the record straight — for example, when it comes to other people’s perception of body language and communication amongst autistic people.

“I use language very differently to someone who’s not autistic. I fold my arms because it’s comfortable. I feel awkward with my hands by my sides. Someone could interpret that as ‘she doesn’t want to talk to me’.

“Someone will ask ‘Do you like my new top?’ and if I answer ‘No, not really’, they’ll say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t care about my feelings’. But that person just wanted a compliment! I’m just direct.

“We (autistic people) actually have our own language and culture. We communicate perfectly fine together. But when autistic and non-autistic people are together the pressure is on the non-autistic people to learn and be these other people.

“If you’re not allowed to be yourself, it’s a massive infringement on your human rights.”

Evaleen is not a supporter of the widely used Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) method of teaching. Advocates of ABA say it has a strong evidence base, comprising more than 50 years of applied research. It is used to treat a range of issues, including autism.

Evaleen Whelton of Konfident Kidz
Evaleen Whelton of Konfident Kidz

But Evaleen argues: “It’s trying to teach them not to be autistic. We need to be able to express ourselves autistically.”

She believes ABA is not widely supported among ‘the autistic community’. and claims: “It’s based on a lack of understanding of autistic people, who we are and how we move our bodies.”

Nor is Evaleen a fan of the ‘Light It Up Blue’ initiative, which sees buildings lit up in a blue colour on April 1, World Autism Day.

She explains that it was started by an American company called Autism Speaks, which heavily invests in ‘cures’ and the idea of eradicating autism. Even the colour blue, she says, arose from the fact that the original diagnostic model is based on boys’ behaviour, while girls were largely invisible in the autism conversation.

She went against it for a few years by organising an alternative Walk In Red in Bandon on the same date.

While Evaleen appreciates initiatives like autism-friendly shopping, she feels not enough is being done — or fast enough.

“Autism-friendly shopping, while welcome, can be one hour on a Tuesday but we’re excluded every other day.

“A lot of people go through college and are highly qualified but they can’t survive the workplace: the social side and the environment, like open plan offices. For example, in a busy restaurant it is hard to filter out sound; I’ll hear what’s going on in the kitchen. We need to create an environment where people succeed.

“Why are we creating an environment where people fail? We are being disabled by the environment. I’m not disabled in my own house. The natural world suits me fine. It’s the man-made stuff that makes difficulties for most of us.”

Evaleen is now channelling her passion for the subject into making history with Ireland’s first ever all-autistic Conference. The AUsome Conference on February 24 in the Rochestown Park Hotel will feature only speakers from the autistic spectrum, offering insights and ideas under the theme Bridging the Gap.

It promises to be an inspiring, thought-provoking and insightful event, giving attendees a unique opportunity to learn about autism from the perspective of Autistic people, rather than the usual speakers at conferences, which Evaleen says tend to be predominantly professionals delivering their opinions and strategies.

Topics will include: Growing up, Employment, Women on the Spectrum, Autism and Gender and Understanding the Autistic Experience.

The opening address will be given by Adam Harris, who was diagnosed with Aspergers from a young age, and is the founder of AsIAm.ie, an organisation that aims give autistic people a voice.

The keynote speaker, Jennifer Cooke O’Toole, will be flying from the United States for the event. Jennifer, an author of the internationally best-selling Asperkids series, is a mother to three children with Aspergers, while she was also diagnosed as an adult in 2011. Dean Beadle, a journalist with Aspergers, will discuss anxiety, while Fiona Quinn from the Cork Women’s Aspergers Group will give a female perspective.

Another participant will be Cork man Brian Irwin, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 22 while at UCC, a revelation after spending his time in school and college being dismissed as lazy, disinterested, or useless.

UK-based Ann Herbert, who is non-verbal, will be accompanied by her carer Kate and will give her presentation through assistive technology.

Lei Crowe, identifying as non-binary, will talk about gender and autism, while Stiof MacAmhalghaidh, self-identified as Autistic in 1980, with a clinical confirmation in 1998, will be another speaker.

The event will also incorporate an art exhibition featuring nine autistic artists.

“Look at what people can do if you foster their talents,” says Evaleen.

She tells worrying stories of parents globally who are engaging in a whole range of ‘treatments’, it seems, with no regulation. It drives Evaleen forward in her efforts to try and change attitudes.

“People say: ‘Sure, God help us, they’re not like me’. That’s just arrogant. Or the worst one: ‘She’s so inspiring’. That’s pretend acceptance. You’re still seeing the disability if you’re commenting on it”, she says.

The final word goes to Evaleen: “Take away all the anxiety and behaviour and we just have a different sensory system. We interact with our environment in a different way, which shapes our thoughts and actions. Because of that we communicate differently to other people.

“Listen to what autistic adults are saying and ask ‘What can we do in our environment that will help you?’”

For more on the conference see: www.facebook.com/ausomecork

More in this section

Sponsored Content

summersoaplogosml

Called Droid, our next story is about a boy who designs a robot at UCC and chaos ensues. It was written by Margaret Gillies, from the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC.

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more