Alden Boon

‘Let’s Stop Trying to Normalise Autism. Let’s Start Normalising Diversity.’: Dr Dawn-joy Leong



One hand washes the other

Because autistics are already so used to being stigmatised and oppressed, many of them throw in the towel and now want to be cradled: ‘Since I’m useless, you have to help me. You have to see things my way.’ Neurotypicals see autistics as personae non gratae because of that; and that is compounded by our deficiency at interpreting subtleties. Either side does not want to budge. Neurotypicals like to chit chat when they work — it’s how they bond. On the other hand, autistics bond over work and common passions. A grand gesture is not needed to address this problem, but a very simple one: excuse the autistic, and call him or her when the group is done with banter and small talk.

The world we live in need not necessarily be bifurcated, a world of autistics versus non-autistics. It is in fact possible for autistics and non-autistics, disabled and non-disabled people, to work together harmoniously. So moved was I by Peter’s dedication to working with disabled artists that I decided to let my guard down and be a part of his theatre projects. While I love plays and welcome the chance to channel my inner Doris Day, performing in theatre was never an option for me, because sensorially it’s daunting. I don’t like hugging and I don’t like being touched. Worse of all, I cannot remember lines, one of the prerequisite skills of an actress. But Peter is creative: he recognises a person’s talent and potential and expand them, instead of trying to correct his or her vulnerabilities. When I couldn’t do in-person rehearsals, he came to my house. For Welcome to My World 2022: Face Together, which starred a pan-disability cast of D/deaf and disabled performers, he cast me as a news anchor, so I could read off scripts. Very easily I slipped in and out of different personalities, from an emotionally charged North Korean to a hyperbolised version of a Singaporean middle-aged woman and a hoity toity British.

The day of the actual shooting, all the cast members, each dealing with our own unique fears and limitations, were so exhausted and overloaded we thought we were going to die. But help had been given, tailored accordingly to our needs, so as professional artists the onus was on us to push ourselves. My personal belief is that when we are fed and full, we must give back. We must forsake the ‘me, me, me’ mentality. It has to be ‘us’: neurotypicals and neurodivergent, capable and disabled people, hand in hand (strictly figuratively speaking).

Thus far I’ve spoken at length about the trials and tribulations of autistics, painting a picture that we only lead very bleak lives bereft of joy. But our emotions do run the gamut. Autistic joy comes when there is a confluence of three factors: firstly, when we are in a domain where we can be our true selves; secondly, when we derive satisfaction from our focused passions; and thirdly when we are in a space that is conducive for us. I’m suffused with euphoria whenever I attend the art exhibitions of my favourite artists. I so desperately want to dance and flap my arms wildly, because there is a surge of dopamine in my brain, and I know no other way to express my joy. But like a good citizen I restrain myself, lest the security guards throw this fifty-six-year-old woman into a cell. Yes, stimming is also an expression of positive emotions — see now the problem with axing our behaviours in one fell swoop?

As part of our itinerary on our business trip, Peter and I found ourselves in a roomful of autistic artists. Later, he said he was overwhelmed and found it hard to keep up with our incessant rattling and constant interjections of counterpoints. He lamented that we didn’t even give him a chance to raise his hands and speak. To that I said: just interrupt us and chime in at any point! Poor Peter, now in a microcosm of autistic social space where all defined parameters of decorum are out the door, it was his turn to be maladroit. The barrelling trains of thought and carefree stimming — this is indeed characteristic of a space where autistic joy flows freely.

Despite all my supposed social ineptness, I do have a soulmate. Her name is Lucy Like-a-Charm, and she is a rescued former racing Greyhound and my (now-retired) psychiatric assistance dog. Yes, you read that right: my soulmate is a dog. I’ve had other pets before: hamsters, fish, but Lucy is more than just a pet. There is a special connexion: I don’t have to speak, and she intuitively knows what I need. For a big dog, her bark is a squeak. It was never taught to her, but she doesn’t get all up on my face and lick me. In the past, she could sense when my senses were about to get distorted. She would back up into me and signal to me to leave a certain space as she knew I was on the brink of a sensory meltdown.

Dawn giving her TEDx Talk with Lucy in tow.

Lucy is my muse and has given me some ideas about life. Her ability to create comfortable interstices for me is the inspiration behind my dissertation, Clement Space, which delves into the need for spaces where an autistic can enjoy respite in a modern city. In 2019, together with two neurodivergent artists Cavan Chang and Timothy Lee, we conceptualised and activated a space at library@orchard based on my principle of Clement Space and echoing the prototype first introduced in 2015. It was a space adorned with tulle and organza curtains, netted tents, blankets, pillows and cushions. This was a gift from us neurodivergent artists to everybody — a gift where one could luxuriate in peace and quietude, away from the noise of the city and stress of daily life.

You see, while we may require a lot of support, there is much that we autistics and disabled people can give to society as well. When society normalises and genuinely accepts neurodiversity and disability, instead of trying to get us to be who we are not, we the beneficiaries will really thrive, and everyone along with us too.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.