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From Protest to Taskforce

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Following the creation of APANA (‘Autistic People Against Neuroleptic Abuse,’ the creation of which is detailed in Chapter 4), Dinah Murray was called on to help deal with the unwelcome visit of Autism Speaks’ founders to Europe. The result of this second campaign was an innovative film, Something About Us, and ultimately, the creation of the UK’s National Autistic Taskforce in 2018. Thus far, it looks set to become a very active part of decision-making processes that relate to autism in the UK.
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From Protest to Taskforce
Dinah Murray
The National Autistic Taskforce’s (NAT) main focus is on autonomy and
justice for people who don’t use speech to meet their needs; that was also
the main focus of the APANA story, and that is where the next stage of
this narrative starts, as one of its key players is Virginia Bovell who was
on the parliamentary advisory group that learnt about neuroleptics from
Wen Lawson and myself. This section is about how the NAT came to be
and what lessons can be learnt.
Autistic Influence on the Emergence
of Autistica
At that All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) meeting men-
tioned above, and after it, my concession that in some cases at low doses
D. Murray (B)
London, UK
© The Author(s) 2020
S. K. Kapp (ed.), Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8437-0_20
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278 D. Murray
some people find risperidone helpful was clearly a vital step towards cred-
ibility (though not liked by the APANA parents at the time). Virginia,
founder of an applied behavioral analysis (ABA) school and achiever of
British version nicey-nice ABA, was also concerned about eugenics, so a
while later we met again to talk about that and I met her son Danny.
Some years passed, then one day in 2008 she and I did a double take in
the street and she asked me in for a cuppa (tea). We had a very pleasant
chat and exchanged phone numbers. Despite our very different views of
behaviourism, we had much common ground.
Just a week later I got a very disturbed phone call from Virginia. A new
CEO of her school (Treehouse), unaware of their bad name had invited
Bob Wright, founder of Autism Speaks, to launch a new series of annual
lectures on autism. To many people it was already clear how distorted their
deeply medical model of autism was, with its analogy to cancer as a problem
to be wiped out as soon as possible, including by genetic intervention. So
Treehouse needed help and we built on our common ground despite a
difference of view that could have ruled that out.
The solution I proposed was to: establish a creative autistic presence; give
autistic people a chance to say what people most need to hear about autism;
have the widest possible exposure; rebalance the specific event to dimin-
ish Autism Speaks’ impact. This created alliances and generated obliga-
tions. Treehouse gave me funding for a professional editor, for two-minute
videos from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), members of my
Posautive Youtube group, and Autscape (see Buckle, Chapter 8)members
as well as from personal contacts. Two thousand Something About Us DVDs
(Something About Us [1] were made and distributed—free and copyright-
free (now part of the exhibition at RightfulLives, www.rightfullives.net/
Community-of-Perspectives.html). At the event in London’s City Hall,
everyone including the visiting Wrights was asked to flap not clap. An
autistic woman, Anya Ustaswewski, cogently responded, and an audience
with many invited autistic people (see the videos at RightfulLives). There
was a small demo outside with these signs (see Figs. 20.1 and 20.2).
Another result was that people were indebted to the autistic input and
Virginia introduced me to key people who recognized the debt (I was not
paid myself). Those included Hilary Gilfoy of whom more below.
20 From Protest to Taskforce 279
Fig. 20.1 Anti-Autism Speaks Logo designed by Dinah Murray
Fig. 20.2 Another Anti-Autism Speaks Logo circulating in 2008, anonymous
This event strengthened my standing as a reasonable person (not all may
agree) again because I had conceded some ground myself, i.e. that the UK
behaviorists were not themselves devil’s spawn. The whole ghastly visit—
perhaps with a bit of help from our well-found critique—contributed to a
painful and difficult process as the UK organization that had been paired
with the US Autism Speaks severed the partnership and reinvented itself
as the strictly British Autistica (which now has a Director of Science who
is autistic himself). I kept up good relations with Hilary Gilfoy in person
280 D. Murray
over the next years as she seemed to me a fair-minded person who was
going to some lengths to distance and separate her organization—funded
by Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley in the UK—from the Americans.
Autistic Input into the National Autism
Project
A few more years passed and in 2014, Dame Steve, who had used her
unexpected great wealth (see her autobiography, LetItGo[2]) to give
very many millions of pounds toward fathoming what autism is all about,
decided to commission the “National Autism Project” (NAP) to study
whether anything useful had emerged from all these decades of autism
practice and research, much of it funded by her.
Thus, in 2015 Ian Ragan and Elizabeth Vallance (from the original
Autism Speaks UK) approached me to join the NAP Strategy Board. I felt
honored, but it mattered to me that if I said yes I wouldn’t just be there
as “window dressing.” As I explained, my experience as a trophy autistic
person at the National Autistic Society had been recent and bruising. I also
did some agonizing over the generous benefactor’s past involvement with
Autism Speaks and her own attitude to autism; but she had funded the first
online autism conference, in 1999, to which I’d contributed with Mike
Lesser and the Webautism course which I helped develop and taught on
at Birmingham University—and Autistica was being transformed. Also,
they agreed to everything I asked for.
I asked for: communication support for attending Board meetings (in
the shape of Damian Milton), as I knew my ability to speak up in a
timely manner was limited at best; I was also concerned that I needed my
own ‘sounding board’ and input from beyond my own limited perspective.
Happily both these ideas were accepted and I constructed a strong advisory
panel with a wide range of both academic and practical knowhow, and I was
able to come to Strategy Board meetings with the unfailingly articulate
(and like-minded) Damian. Hilary Gilfoy, who had guided Autisticas
disentanglement from Autism Speaks, was not technically on the Board,
but took excellent minutes at Board meetings and was perceived as a
20 From Protest to Taskforce 281
supportive presence by both Damian and myself (and, I think, by her old
friend Dame Steve) owing to her calm friendliness.
Having someone as steady as Damian by my side, who also had a
fantastic grasp of all the key issues, transformed my capacity to be of some
use at the meetings. Eventually everyone was treating us both as equal
Board members, and he was contributing freely on the spot in a way I
cannot perform myself. There were few occasions when our views diverged,
which obviously helped—and at the final Board meeting Damian couldn’t
attend and I managed to contribute quite fluently myself as I had learnt
to trust the people there. How did that happen?
It didn’t start too well. A lot of work had been done and decisions taken
before the first Board meeting took place—that included drawing up a
list of Experts, all of them professionals from academics to psychiatrists to
charity bods. I queried why the Autistic Advisory Panel (AAP), who I knew
to be deeply knowledgeable in the field, did not also count as “experts.”
I went and met and talked to the report researchers Professor Knapp and
postgraduate Valentina Iemmi quite early on, and I think opened their eyes
to how much disability can be created by a hostile environment and what
that might mean vis-à-vis autism. They appeared genuinely interested.
Even so, by the summer of 2015 I was beginning to think of resigning
because of the way the AAP members were lumped together as “Dinahs
panel” and their individual great expertise disregarded. However, Damian,
AAP member Catriona Stewart, and I had a chat at Autscape and Catriona
argued for the Panel to have a face-to-face meeting, which we later did,
with the NAP Project Leader, the NAP Chair, and Hilary in attendance.
That was the beginning of the real listening.
Gradually all the people on the Panel became distinct and valued con-
tributors to the NAP. The interesting and open-minded other members
of the Strategy Board began to hear favorable things about us. Two of
the AAP members were turned from pawns to queens and added to the
Experts list—Drs Yo Dunn and Catriona Stewart. Cat was their Scot-
tish specialist and Yo was far the most effective and knowledgeable expert
they had when it came to calling the Government out on its own laws.
In effect she became the NAP’s warhead, wheeled into many discussions
with senior civil servants to blow them away with her detailed and accurate
legal knowledge.
282 D. Murray
By the time the Project report, The Autism Dividend , was launched
in early 2017, the large contribution of members of the Panel as well as
our “experts” was being explicitly recognized. The report was repeatedly
revised and improved by our critical input—and saved from some seri-
ous failings—which resulted in Damian and myself being honored at the
report launch in a House of Lords venue, as “Productive Irritants” by its
lead author, Martin Knapp. Some fundamental differences from his ear-
lier report on “the cost of autism” were that the burden/disease concept
had been replaced by explicit recognition of autistic potential and of the
varied barriers that prevent it from being realized; it also highlighted a very
poor evidence base for most practice, resulting from widespread very low
research standards (see autistic researcher Michelle Dawson on Twitter,
@autismcrisis, for much more about those).
At that year’s Autscape (see Buckle, Chapter 8), five members of the
AAP were there, and the National Autism Project’s willingness to listen
and take us seriously was feted and rejoiced in: the final report is much
admired. We are all proud to have contributed to its excellence. Widely
seen as the highlight of the 2017 Autscape, Yo Dunn gave a stunning,
passionate talk about what she called “The Other Half” and what is more
fluent autistic people can and should do about the vast numbers of autistic
people who are not articulate but depend on frequent or full-time support.
Privately we discussed the idea that if some sort of future for the AAP was
going to emerge, its point could be to focus on the Other Half.
In parallel with these discussions, unknown to us, Dame Steve was
having some thoughts of her own. Those led her to entrust me with the
generous sum of £100,000 to fund a continuation and transformation of
the NAP’s AAP. She was clearly pleased we chose to focus on people, like
her late son, Giles, who need the most communication support. The new
body was named the NAT and acquired the strapline: Bolder Voices—
Better Practice.
The National Autistic Taskforce
With Damian Milton as project leader, we conceived the Taskforce’s main
practical aim to be to turn more of the promises encoded in weak and
20 From Protest to Taskforce 283
toothless legislation into realities, for people who are poorly placed even
to recognize let alone defend their own rights and interests and whose
parents are often cut out of discussions when their offspring are teenagers.
We are identifying specific targets and crucial steps along the way, as
well as potential obstacles and ways to get around them. We have small
focused working groups (GNATs, or Groups of the NAT) on changing
practice in the target areas. We are also building up a wider network of
autistic individuals and groups across the British Isles so we can draw on a
wide range of expertise with as broad and well-informed views as possible.
Thanks to this terrific bunch of committed and knowledgeable people, we
have been already able to interact constructively with agents of government
and other stakeholders, and thanks to Yo Dunn in particular, theTaskforce
has drafted several well-supported and closely argued responses to relevant
government consultations on behalf of NAT (see nationalautistictaskforce.
org) and created the NAT Independent Guide [3].
We think we are well-placed to be seen as carrying some weight, with an
executive made up of Kabie Brook, Leneh Buckle, Yo Dunn, and Damian
Milton as project leader; and the NAT’s history and status mean we have
some enviable introductions and contacts. We think our connection with
the National Autism Project means that, from an establishment position,
we are seen from the start as both credible and significant. Big charities
that say they are speaking for autistic people always have their own survival
as top priority.
Lessons Learned
What lessons can we learn from this narrative, stretching from the mid-
90s to the present day? The process involved creating, discovering, and
using community of interest—i.e. shared values and passions—among
a diverse range of people whose interests and views outside our specific
common purposes often differed widely. Working alongside other autistic
people may take quite a lot of additional work (by all concerned) to ensure
that communication is effective and perceptions of all sorts are factored
in, allowed for and not seen as insuperable barriers, even if there’s some
284 D. Murray
potentially painful cognitive dissonance. That said, having autistic com-
rades along when entering any lions’ dens can in my experience make all
the difference between being able or not able to communicate effectively.
Our impact partly depends on pragmatic adaptation, but our strongest
suit is being people with the passion and commitment and indifference
to hierarchy to persevere obstinately against the odds. Be an opportunity
hound, don’t miss a chance!
I have always made a point of assuming everyone has a good heart,
as Kabie Brook of Autism Rights Group Highlands (ARGH) recently
pointed out to me in relation to the NAT—only once or twice has this
precept let me down. In every campaign I found that goodwill, fellow
feeling, and knowhow were freely shared, and personal connections were
crucial. Expecting and also returning tolerance, understanding, and accep-
tance from others has worked well to further aims. I found it’s best to
expect mistakes, delays, miscommunications, so as not be “thrown” by
these: they are inevitable and it is usually pointless or harmful to attach
blame (of self or others) to any of them. If at all possible, stay polite, work
on the common ground and remember that though changing practices
and attitudes can take decades, lots of small changes really can add up to
big ones.
On a more cynical note, remember that when reputations are at stake
the power imbalance shifts if those with least power have a voice that can
be heard. That’s why digital inclusion is so vital and a strategic goal of the
NAT. On we go.
References
1. Murray, D., & Benstock, J. (2008). Something about us [Documentary].
2. Shirley, S., & Askwith, R. (2012). Let it go: The memoirs of Dame Stephanie
Shirley. UK: Andrews UK Limited.
3. National Autistic Taskforce (NAT). (2019). An independent guide to qual-
ity care for autistic people.https://nationalautistictaskforce.org.uk/wp-content/
uploads/RC791_NAT_Guide_to_Quality_Online.pdf.
20 From Protest to Taskforce 285
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... Given that the practice of ABA is highly variable in terms of goals, context, approaches and client group, some members of the neurodiversity movement have recognised that there are relevant distinctions in how it is applied across the autistic population. Murray (2020) refers to "British version nicey-nice ABA". This falls short of an endorsement, but it does recognise as relevant the distinction between different ways of implementing ABA. ...
Let it go: The memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley
  • S Shirley
  • R Askwith
Shirley, S., & Askwith, R. (2012). Let it go: The memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley. UK: Andrews UK Limited.