This week, Sallyann Freudenberg and Katherine Kirk have been running a small summit on inclusive collaboration and neurodiversity – not just focused on diversity in our experiences, but in the very make-up of our brain.
Sallyann suggested there was a little test that could be taken to discover if we ourselves have any autistic tendencies. I wasn’t surprised to find that I register on the threshold. I remember the years spent entirely alone at junior school, without worrying about any need for friends; losing myself in raindrops trickling down the windows; the rich visual stuff in my head (doesn’t everyone think like that? Apparently not, says Sallyann.)
I spot patterns not because I think about them a lot but because I associate visual and kinesthetic experiences. Cynefin isn’t just made up of obvious and complicated and complex and chaotic things; it’s stuff that’s hard and doesn’t budge; that fits together and clicks and is a bit greasy like cogs; that’s organic and smells peaty and crawls and climbs and shifts like plasticine; that’s on fire. When I feel the same way about something in life or work, I know instinctively what it is I’m looking at, which is why I think the framework made sense to me. Knowing how my head works has made a big difference.
In the last couple of years I’ve also lost much of my hearing. I’ve always been a bit deaf in the bass, but NHS hearing aids back when I was a child were big, clunky things that amplified the air con more than anything. Now I’ve lost more hearing still, so I need them. NHS hearing aids these days are tiny, but apparently my ear canals are narrow, and even in “extra-small” size the little gadgets hurt a bit to put in. Still, I can hear. It’s a blessing… and also incredibly tiring and draining. Paying attention to people is hard, though I have to, if I want to make a difference to the world.
So, when they told me that we’d be assembling hands for children who’d lost theirs, in complete silence, I felt calm and happy. No more straining to hear people. No more asking them to repeat themselves. Silence, my friend for a long time, would be keeping me company alongside my team-mates.
Then we started work.
First, we were missing the instructions. Oops! Are we meant to assemble this without them? I wondered. But no, they’d mentioned instructions… oh, Gitte put up her hand, so she’s on it.
We read through. I happened to sit in the middle, between Gitte and Aaron. A bad idea… I always tend to dominate these kinds of activities, with or without speaking. I tried hard to make sure that I was giving the others a chance to participate and not just doing all myself, but at one point Gitte started writing on a post-it. Katherine had suggested we do that, for things that we were thinking, or wanted to say.
What’s she writing? I thought. Is it about me? Did I do something wrong? Am I being too dominant again? Wow, that’s really paranoid. Seriously.
They seem to know what they’re doing. Why aren’t they doing it? They should pick up the fingers, the pins, the cogs. I want to. I’ll just hold them and let them take them; is that still dominating? They aren’t moving. Are they waiting for me? Do they want me to lead? I can do that, but it’s not a good idea; I should let one of them have a go.
It’s a lot like Lego. It’s easy. Do they think it’s easy? Am I being arrogant? I studied engineering; maybe it’s easier for me… no, they have it, look. Yep, that’s me being arrogant again; I’m not the only one who knows how to do this. Might want to remember some humility next time, Liz, teach you to think you know better.
I wanted silence, but I didn’t have it. I had too many thoughts, instead. Too many things that I wanted to say… not to my team-mates, but to myself.
The others started the day with meditation (which I don’t enjoy; a long story which I won’t tell here) but I don’t often get the chance to really talk to myself about what I’m thinking… let alone to listen. Self-hypnosis is similar, and I do practice it, but not as often as perhaps I should. I do freewriting sometimes, too, and it felt a bit like that, listening to my own running commentary inside my head.
There was only one thing I really wanted to say: hush. Be quiet. It’s OK.
At some point I think my head started to listen. It was all right that I didn’t know where a piece went, or what it was that Gitte wrote this time. It was all right that we made a bit of noise when we used my empty coffee cup as a hammer, and I didn’t need to worry about what the other teams thought. After a while, my thoughts stopped chattering and started getting to work. I started paying attention to what the others wanted, instead of what I wanted… and I moved seats so that Gitte was in the middle.
These days I’m generally good at being quiet around others. The WAIT acronym – Why Am I Talking? – is often at the forefront of my mind. Being quiet around myself, though, so that I can actually hear what other people are saying, and not just with my ears… that’s my new quest.
Somewhere, this year, a child will be getting a hand that they need.
I think I found something I was missing, too.