Friday, 1 August 2014

Spades and shovels

I'd like to start this post by saying that I've had a great time at the inaugural Autism in Education conference put on by Autism Spectrum Australia. 

I hope to reflect a bit more and post about what I learnt and how I enjoyed it in the coming days. There is something that has been niggling at me for a while now (not just during this conference) and I feel like now I have the words to talk about it. So here we are on our way to an observation which I hope people understand is an ongoing thing which is in response to a number of experiences rather than my predominant feeling about this particular conference which I found both informative and immensely enjoyable.

Yesterday I was one of four speakers in a session of diversity. I got up and spoke about my experiences in high school and particularly my experiences of choice and flexibility in learning. 

After I spoke the other speakers all made sure to tell me I'd done a good job. This is something that I do appreciate, but there is a comment I would like to make about this polite and well-intentioned social practice. 

Good job is a pretty ambiguous comment and I'm not really sure if people would have said something had they not known about my diagnosis. It could equally mean "good job for getting up there and talking - it can't have been easy" or "good job that was a clear and informative presentation and I enjoyed it". When I'm unsure whether it's just one of those things people feel somehow obliged to say because it's polite, telling me I've done a "good job" after I get up in front of people and talked about my experiences doesn't really tell me anything beyond the fact that people wish to be supportive.

The purpose of speaking at conferences is to share ideas and communicate a clear message. Knowing how successful I have been at this is useful. I realise not everyone may feel comfortable giving me specific feedback but knowing a bit more about what I did well is useful i.e. It was really good how you explained blah or the personal stories made it easy to relate to. Equally, I'd prefer to know if my presentation was vague and confusing than to live in ignorance and have people misunderstand my intended message.

I understand that people don't want to "beat us down with a shovel" (be bluntly honest and in doing so make us feel hurt badly about ourselves which may damage our self-esteem) but whilst encouragement is important we value the truth. We prefer people to "call a spade a spade" (to tell the truth and not lie in order to protect someone's feelings from being hurt). One of the things that gets brought up again and again as one of the strengths of Autistic people is our honesty - and usually we prefer people being honest with us too. Constructive feedback given well allows people not just to be encouraged but to do a better job next time. If we haven't communicated something well we'd rather know that and rephrase or improve it for next time than be told we've done a brilliant job when we actually haven't.

To be clear here I am not talking about the words or actions of any specific persons. I appreciated the encouragement given to me by people who heard my talk yesterday at the Aspect Autism in Education conference. What I'm referring to here is a general trend or culture.

The culture of low expectations is an often subconscious, but nevertheless persistent, problem that isn't unique to Autism (see Stella Young's speech from TEDxSydney - ). I'd like to know if I did a good talk by the general standards of a good talk not just a good talk for someone with a  developmental disability.

The thing that I find ironic about this is that many of the people likely to give this ambiguous, polite kind of feedback are researchers. As someone who has studied psychology I know that researchers go to great lengths to try and minimize response bias in their studies. That is to do their utmost to ensure that people aren't responding in a way they view as socially desirable or presume is what the researcher wants instead of really being honest. Autistic people are often highly logical but we can't create an objective external view of ourselves, we need the feedback of others to assess our communication and collect evidence reassess how we can be successful. This means that specific, constructive and honest feedback is highly useful.

So by all means we appreciate people's encouragement. But when being told we have done a good job - we would like to know when it's the objective truth and not just one of those things people say.


  1. Well said, Tori! This is how I feel about critiquing in writing groups! Of course praise where praise is due, is a good thing, but merely saying, "I liked it", or "good effort" isn't going to help any of us to be the best writers we can be. As Christians, we are told to be encouragers, but encouragement takes many forms. All too often, we interpret that as never, ever, ever, saying anything meaningful (unless it's Pollyanna sweet) in case it's taken as a negative. It's a blooming minefield! On a personal note, if your writing is any indication, then you're a very good speaker - clear, concise and to the point. :) Rhonda P.

  2. I do not appreciate being praised just for being an Autistic speaker. I need constructive criticism to develop as a speaker on an equal basis, rather than being a performing gimp.