Friday, March 19, 2021

Review: Neurodiversity, Autism, and Recovery from Sexual Violence: A practical resource for all those working to support victim-survivors

Sonny Hallett
twitter.com/scrappapertiger

Book Cover. Black text at the top reads,  Neurodiversity, Autism & Recovery from Sexual Violence Under is an illustration a seated purple figure holding an armful of pink and purple blossoms. More blossoms surround them on the ground and in the air. smaller black text underneath reads,   by Dr Susy Ridout, Illustrated by Catherine Haywood  Even smaller black text at the bottom reads,"A practical  resource for all those working to support victim-survivors"
[Image: Book Cover. Black text at the top reads,
Neurodiversity, Autism & Recovery from Sexual Violence
Under is an illustration a seated purple figure holding an
armful of pink and purple blossoms. More blossoms
surround them on the ground and in the air.
smaller black text underneath reads, 
 by Dr Susy Ridout, Illustrated by Catherine Haywood 
Even smaller black text at the bottom reads,"
A practical
resource for all those working to support victim-survivors"] 
CN: discussion of sexual violence and abuse

Considering how many autistic people struggle with mental health difficulties related to trauma, there is really very little in the way of resources, let alone good practical guides, for those supporting autistic people dealing with traumatic experiences. What little there is is also so often about us rather than by us, and written from rather clinical and pathologising perspectives. 

Susy Ridout’s book Neurodiversity, Autism, and Recovery from Sexual Violence: A practical resource for all those working to support victim-survivors has therefore been a breath of fresh air to read through—not only because it offers practical and specific guidance on a far too neglected topic, but also because it is a book that truly feels like it comes from the autistic community, centering autistic experiences and needs, and boiling some quite complex ideas down into simple activities and explanations which I feel will make it accessible for a wide range of practitioners and individuals.

Ridout’s book focuses on trauma and recovery from sexual violence (and to a lesser extent relationship-
related trauma), but many of the exercises and ideas in the book could, I think, be equally useful for autistic people dealing with other types of traumatic events and related difficulties. The book is separated into seven sections: Rebuilding your life; Safety; Mental Wellbeing; Physical Wellbeing; Emotions; Friendships, Relationships and Disclosure; and Memory, Concentration and Sensory Experiences. 

While all of the sections are rooted in the context of recovering from sexual violence, and reflect on the additional challenges that might present to an autistic person, most of the chapters also hold a lot of general relevance for supporting autistic people struggling with aspects of their mental health and related day to day living, particularly when there may be traumatic triggers also in the mix. For instance, activities related to rebuilding a routine, body awareness, taking ownership of one’s space, identifying and managing different sensory experiences, etc., all have valuable broader applicability, and could be adapted for different individual’s needs and circumstances.

The topics more specific to recovery from sexual violence also do well to bring in the specific differences and challenges that may apply for autistic victim-survivors. The section on sensory experiences, for example, looks at autistic sensory differences and suggests ways to explore how they might be impacted by trauma. The section on disclosure is excellent, going into some depth on how to support a person to decide whether disclosure might or might not be wanted or necessary, why people might choose not to disclose, clear examples of the of what might need to be considered with disclosure to different categories of people, and an activity to help the individual drill down and gain more clarity and control over what information they might want to give out. 

All of this specificity on organising thoughts, and bringing in the contexts of different types of interpersonal relationships, is an example of Ridout’s great attention to detail in this book, and how it is rooted in the different concerns and uncertainties that are such a familiar part of many autistic people’s experiences.

The only thing that I felt was possibly missing was a little more social context—the confusing nature of social expectations and pressures on autistic people to conform, leading many of us to be uncomfortably uncertain of our boundaries, which no doubt contributes to many of us being hurt and abused by others. I would have also liked a little more on how to clearly define and establish these boundaries for ourselves, and to find ways to recognise when they have been crossed, without self-blame. I think a lot of autistic people (and non-autistic people, to be fair!) can struggle with being sure about our own rights to stating what is and isn’t okay—for example due to being unsure about what is or isn’t ‘normal’ (e.g. “they just wanted a hug, that’s normal” said to someone who doesn’t feel they are allowed to express that not wanting a hug is equally valid and needs to be respected)—and this is something we can often do with more validation and support in exploring. That said, this book does centre the victim-survivor’s autonomy throughout, and in many ways many of the activities around rebuilding one’s life and environment are also in essence about (re)establishing ownership and control of one’s own boundaries and preferences.

The organisations, references and further reading sections of the book show just what an autistic-led and -centred venture this whole project has been. I struggled to find a reference or further reading recommendation that wasn’t by an autistic author, which is just such an unusual and wonderful thing to see, and really highlights the range, quality, and depth of resources and knowledge available from the autistic community. It makes me want to wave this book at non-autistic people working on projects about us and say “if you can’t find enough quality resources by autistic people, you might not be looking hard enough or in the right places!”

The book also introduces and interweaves some really important but potentially complex topics relevant to autistic life experience, including the double empathy problem and theory of monotropism, as well as more generally the context of neurodiversity. However, it does this lightly and practically, making it clear to readers who are supporting autistic people why they need to try to understand and care about these ideas, that in my experience some support workers and other practitioners might otherwise have dismissed as overly academic and not applicable to the day to day of their work.

Overall, the book presents itself as a “toolkit”, which I think is a very apt description, with each section containing a mixture of contextual information, several practical tasks of different types, ‘pull-out’ worksheets at the back, and personal reflections from the author. Ridout’s voice is really present throughout in what feels to me like a really personable way, and gives me a strong sense of the author having tried out each of these activities and ideas, both personally and professionally. Each topic in each section is short and broken up into manageable steps and bullet points, interspersed with Catherine Hayward’s warm and friendly illustrations, making this book feel very easy to pick up and use as a guide, or to dip into for ideas. 

The practical activities range from the more ‘expected’ in this kind of book, of making lists and mind maps, to specific physical activities and how they could be adapted for different needs (and I particularly appreciated the matter-of-course inclusion of planning and sensory environment related issues). There are also quite charming detailed step by step instructions for making objects like cushions, planting herbs, or even making a table. This means that throughout, there is a range of ways for different people to engage with the activities and ideas suggested in this book, depending on their preferences, interests, and abilities.

I think this is a book that institutions, organisations, and practitioners who support autistic people would do well to have to hand—both for its practical guidance and autistic-experience-centred framing, but also I hope that it will encourage readers to also seek out further works and resources that come from the autistic community, by autistic people. I also think that this book could be valuable for autistic people looking for support and ideas for themselves, and I hope that other autistic folks reading it might also feel what I did, in enjoying the feeling of validation and recognition of reading something that feels like it was written for and by people much more like me than is usually the case.

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Neurodiversity, Autism & Recovery from Sexual Violence: A practical resource for all those working to support victim-survivors by Dr Susy Ridout, Illustrated by Catherine Haywood, is available from Pavilion Publishing (on Twitter at twitter.com/PavPub). The separate sections (more affordable option) are also available as themed booklets directly from the author at www.lulu.com/spotlight/SusyRidout.

Sonny Hallett is an autistic trainer, advocate, and trainee counsellor based in Edinburgh, Scotland. They received a review copy of this book from the publisher.