Am I subversive? An autistic person navigates the Open Floor and wonders how inclusive we really are

I was described as ‘subversive’ in the Open Floor mentor group the other day. It set me thinking about all the ways in which autistic modes of being are constantly interpreted / misinterpreted in allistic1 culture – often so thoroughly and insistently that eventually we as autistic people incorporate the interpretation as reality. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly been referred to ‘subversive’, ‘anarchic’, ‘rebellious’ and other variations on that theme. Sometimes it has been with affection; other times it has come with a backwash of judgement and disapproval. Up to now, I’ve pretty much taken it on and defended it, as if it belonged to me, but there comes a moment when a tipping point is reached. Something’s got to fall off the top of the heap.

To me, subversive suggests an intention to subvert. But I’m actually not interested in disruption for its own sake. What you’re witnessing if you see me engage with Open Floor is just an autistic person engaging with Open Floor. I am really searching out ways of understanding and offering this work that feel authentic and meaningful for me, ways of being in it, both as a praxis and as a community of practitioners, that feel nourishing and supportive rather than dysregulating and overwhelming. As someone autistic, I often know only vaguely and two beats behind everyone else what is the ‘normal’ (read ‘allistic’) and expected response; and even then it’s a kind of intellectual apprehension; it doesn’t register on my internal compass. I seldom have an intrinsic sense of the ‘rightness’ of it being the way allistic people presume it’s going to be. So I am always wobbling on the pointy edge of producing what you expect me to produce or allowing the expression of what naturally wants to push through to the surface.

It’s challenging to be in a curriculum which is so fond of referring to itself as that, and in which the language of ‘teaching’ and ‘student’ is so valorised. Autistic people are most often our own teachers. We will research every angle, but in order truly to know, we have to take the whole thing apart and reinvent it, generally in wild, strange and unanticipated ways. We take nothing as given. As one of my autistic clients says, ‘It’s never enough to be told; I have to go through it myself to know for certain.’ This is why innovators and ground-breakers – those people who revise cultural, scientific and artistic understandings – are often autistic. Yet while the results may be revolutionary, the autistic person is usually far more absorbed in the stuff of their specialism than they are interested in what society makes of their break-through productions.2

It felt really, really good to shuck off ‘subversive’ ­and reframe it as what it actually is. And I’m grateful that the mentor group is the kind of receptive space where it feels possible to up-end perceptions in this way, knowing that different realities can be received and held. Not all spaces are like this.

I’d love for there to be more genuine inclusion on the Open Floor. My experience is that while there’s a wish and a willingness to include up to a point, it doesn’t extend far enough to motivate most of those who organise and facilitate actually to do things differently where this entails some disruption to their own habits and preferences. You can be included if you’re willing to make all the accommodations yourself. If you’re unable to stand, for instance, (I can’t for long), you can sit down during the standing circle, but – as if you don’t actually exist in the group – there will still be a standing circle.

It has been an enormous struggle – over many years of remaining upright through pain, fatigue and dizzy-faintness – for me to be able to stand up (sit down) for myself in this simple way on the dance floor. It takes A LOT of self-confidence to offer yourself as the big sore thumb in a large international workshop with a high-profile teacher who has not made any enquiry into the special needs of individual dancers on the floor. Make no mistake about it, this is a powerful statement. A teacher who is more involved in control than in listening and receiving may judge you as lazy, uncooperative, challenging, or, oh yes, subversive. Even in a small workshop with a relatively unknown facilitator, power dynamics are surely in play. Many of the people we as facilitators hold in our dance spaces are drawn to movement practice for reasons that make them vulnerable in multiple ways. They need our help in listening to their authentic needs and in holding their genuine boundaries. We have to take care that we are not only talking the good talk but are really engaged in helping them to do this work. For all of us, the extent to which we are managing to offer this kind of supportive inclusivity must be an ongoing open question.

It’s not that I haven’t received help like this – I have, and I’m super-, heart expandingly-grateful – but it was over a decade before I was able to make known that I needed it. It was like the crackling of glacial surfaces and an ice age coming to an end. We are all growing older, wiser and more decrepid, and as a result some of our spaces (I’m speaking here of the Five Rhythms and all of its children, of which Open Floor is the youngest) are becoming kinder, more open-minded, less attached to the delivery of cherished teachings and more responsive to the needs of the dancers in the room. I feel so anyway. I hope so.

I’m in another mentor group. We are seven autistic women. I told the group my ‘subversive’ story. These were a couple of the responses:

I totally recognise that. I’m often described as awkward, contrary, rebellious, perverse or non-conformist. Some are disapproving and others admiring, even envious. I’ve kind of taken on that identity with pride, but reframing it now, it’s all about our intention being misconstrued. I never set out to be rebellious, but I guess I’ve taken it on because I was being seen that way. There have been more than a few times when I wanted to say (and sometimes have said), ‘Actually that’s not my intention at all.’

I recognise this only too well. I get misinterpreted by a certain kind of person who thinks that my desire to play with concepts and excitedly share information is trying to prove I’m cleverer than them and that my willingness to do things that frighten other people is me being ambitious and having ideas ‘above my station’. I had a supervisor who was a classic example of this. I’m not ambitious in the way he believed. My motivation is around services for clients, or my desire to learn new things, or be creative, not to empire-build or grab opportunities for personal promotion.

It seems that it’s difficult for the neuro-majority to really ‘get’ that the way they process and perceive things is only one possible way of processing and perceiving. If you want to make an autistic person incandescent with rage, try telling them, ‘We’re all on the spectrum.’ We are not. People who are autistic – and only people who are autistic ­– are on the autism spectrum.3 Maybe the recital of the dread sentence is well intended; presumably it’s a misguided attempt at empathy; the problem is that it whitewashes and belittles the very real and unique difficulties that autistic people routinely face in allistic society. As one autistic woman commented, ‘You wouldn’t go up to someone in a wheelchair and tell them how you sprained your ankle once so you know how they feel, or say to someone with Alzheimer’s that you are really forgetful too.’

As I feel for an end point to this writing, it strikes me that ‘subversive’ as a descriptor is really a way of excluding. What ‘subverts’ is the thing that the school or the teacher or the teachings or the practice container is not yet elastic or expansive enough to encompass. By bringing our difference, our unexpectedness, the uniqueness of our perceptions, our left-field, autistic, one-directional determination and ‘cussedness’, together with our absolute commitment to honesty and authenticity, we can challenge the container to grow. And if it’s a good container – a vital, generative, evolving one – it will respond.

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1. Allistic: ‘non-autistic’. This is a good article about the language of autistic and other neurologies.

2. Steve Silberman’s acclaimed book Neurotribes is a a brilliant discussion of this.

3. I like this – very autistic – explanation of the autism spectrum.

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