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Deeper Read: Space To Exist

21 April 2020
Clem Bastow illustration Trip mag December 2019

Clem Bastow explains the need for representation of Autistic people beyond the “awkward white male genius” model of popular media, and how her neurodivergent thinking leads to the more-than-occasionally byzantine links she makes during Superfluity.

ILLUSTRATION EDITH VIGNAL

There’s a Temple Grandin quote that I have pinned to my desk: ‘My mind works just like an internet search engine that has been set to access only images. The more pictures I have stored in the internet inside my brain, the more templates I have of how to act in a new situation. More and more information can be placed in more and more categories. The categories can be placed in trees of master categories with many subcategories. For example, there are jokes that make people laugh and jokes that do not work.’

At first glance, this quote probably just reads as an interesting insight into the way Grandin thinks. To me, on the other hand, the quote is the set-up and pay-off for a side-splitting joke. Jokes that make people laugh and jokes that do not work? Hilarious!

It’s possible that you, dear reader, don’t find this joke as funny as I do; it’s entirely likely that you do not, in fact, see it as a joke at all. This is less to do with humour being entirely subjective (just ask me: I hate The Big Lebowski, and roar with laughter all the way through No Country For Old Men), and more to do with the different ways our brains are wired.

Though I cannot claim to be an internationally renowned professor of animal science, my mind works similarly to Grandin’s, as not only are we both hilarious, we’re also both Autistic women. Yes, it’s true: I’ve buried the lede here. ‘How long has Clem been Autistic?!’ Well, ‘officially’ – or maybe, rather, publicly – since I got my membership card and Autism Police badge in mid-2018 along with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (In reality: since birth.)

‘Big deal,’ someone says, ‘aren’t we all a little bit “on the spectrum”?’ Allow me to wail the siren and flash said badge in the driver’s side window when I say: no, we’re not. But I have learned that every time someone says ‘aren’t we all a little bit “on the spectrum”?’, it is what the after-school specials call A Teachable Moment. The Autism spectrum, to begin with, isn’t a straight line (we prefer an infinity symbol), but even if it was, it wouldn’t begin at ‘very Autistic’ and end at ‘not Autistic’. Rather, it’s a collection of traits and behaviours that may be amplified in some and muted in others, but that must be present in order to necessitate a diagnosis.

Perhaps you share certain traits with an Autistic person, such as aversion to certain sensory stimuli (temperatures, sounds, textures, The Big Lebowski quotes): that doesn’t make you Autistic, but it hopefully makes you more qualified to understand their unique experience of the world. In other words, if your Autistic friend, family member or colleague says (or looks like) they might scream if the thermostat rises another degree or they have to touch cauliflower-cheese, you can feel free to believe them.

(This is a human concept known as empathy, which Autistic people of course lack the genetic marker for.)

((Gotcha: that is another Great Joke; many Autistic people in fact suffer from a surfeit of empathy, not the opposite; it’s like Superman being able to hear everybody’s innermost thoughts all the time.))

So, back to Professor Grandin’s joke, how does my mind work? It isn’t so much an internet search engine as, depending on the circumstances, a Rolodex full of witty anecdotes, a three-dimensional filing system (‘It’s a UNIX system! I know this!’) of things that have happened to me, or countless Venn diagrams colliding in real-time, floating in space, as I connect the dots of my PhD research.

Funnily enough, it’s this neurodivergent way of thinking that leads to the more-than-occasionally byzantine links I make in the Tuesday night game that is Superfluity. The mnemonic, if you like, is typically sonic – something in the preceding song’s tone, rhythm or lyrics that jogs my memory – but the tune itself acts as the access code (I believe an Ocarina of Time reference would be pertinent here, had I ever played it) to the filing system inside my mind, which is visual.

How can a visually-based thought process work in the context of a show all about music? It’s literally like flipping through the records in a bin, or hitting fast-forward on rage or MTV, until I get to the link that I think I want to make. You may have forgotten, for example, the time Beck’s record company had a robot interview him for a video package upon the release of Mutations, or the exact shade of awful olive satin of Graham Nash’s shirt on the cover of the 1967 Canadian release of The Hits of the Hollies, but I certainly haven’t.

(Lest I accidentally uphold the post-Rainman stereotype of Autistic superpowers, I should note that my mental UNIX system is only the first step: then I have my good friends Wikipedia, Spotify and Google take over.)

My approach to music listening played a part in both my love of broadcasting but also my assessment and diagnosis. If I hear a song that piques my interest, it’s highly likely I will then play it, oh… [consults iTunes and Spotify]... roughly 87 times in a row. (Shout-out to the listeners who recall how often I managed to squeeze Black Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut’ into the old Transference playlists. In fact I have a vague memory of someone subscribing to that very habit.) It turns out, most people don’t do this. Nor do they see films five or six times at the cinema, or feel like they’re being electrocuted if someone brushes their arm, or happily eat the same meal every day for months on end, or have a tendency to walk into walls if there are too many mirrors in a space.

Music is no longer part of my ‘job’; I gave up music criticism years ago, and research and teaching has replaced freelance writing in the past few years. Superfluity gives me an opportunity to tap back into the record bin of my mind (and also to spend two hours with two of the greatest guys on earth, Christos and Casey), but there’s also a subtly political slant. Autistic girls, women and gender-diverse people are far more likely to be misdiagnosed, or go undiagnosed, than their Autistic male brethren; there are still pockets of people who actually believe women ‘can’t’ be Autistic. The simple public presence of Autistic people beyond the ‘awkward white male genius’ model presented by popular culture (death to The Good Doctor) is a way of saying ‘we exist’.

Plugging in the UNIX system for a week of Superfluity is a chance to take the mask off, which is not a cunning reference to having a face for radio, but rather, to the pressure of existing as Autistic in a neurotypical world. Believe it or not, it takes a lot of energy to, for example, not melt down due to stress, not jiggle/whistle/sing/yawn/scratch in ‘inappropriate’ settings, or to try to remember if the anecdote or phrase I’ve just retrieved from my mental filing system has ‘tested well’ or not in previous conversations (see: jokes that make people laugh and jokes that do not work). I know that most people’s reactions to an enthusiastic barrage of information regarding my latest special interest will fall somewhere on a scale of ‘polite boredom’ to ‘utter frustration’.

On a Tuesday night between 8pm and 10pm, on the other hand, not only is indulging my current and enduring musical special interests appropriate, it’s positively encouraged. And in a world where anti-vaccination rhetoric sees a dead or gravely ill child as a better outcome than a potentially Autistic child, #AutismParents flood message boards trying to work out how to make their Autistic kids ‘seem more normal’, and The Big Bang Theory exists, that’s a beautiful thing.


Clem Bastow co-presents Superfluity at 8pm on Tuesdays. She’s currently undertaking a PhD at RMIT and writing a book about Autism and gender. When she’s not doing any of the aforementioned, she can be found at the nearest Pokemon Go gym. Edith Vignal presents ‘Things to Do Today’ on Vital Bits. This article first appeared in Triple R's subscriber magazine The Trip.