Rachel Aanstad and Dr. Wenn Lawson, Autistic Advocate and author of over 20 books, discuss being an Autistic parent, over-committing to projects, the advantages to aging as an Autistic, his experience transitioning to being a man at age 61, his love of birds and the art of saying “Oh well.”
Transcription courtesy of Christina Lausch-Waas
Rachel: Hello everyone, welcome to the Actually Autistic Podcast and today my guest is Dr. Wenn Lawson.
Hello Dr. Wenn! Say hi to everybody, please.
Wenn Lawson: Hi, hello everybody, hi.
Rachel: Dr Wenn, you are all the way in Australia, I’m all the way in Oregon and the timezone is crazy, it’s like 13 hours and an extra day or something. So you are significantly farther in the future than I am.
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, and that’s even without a time travel machine.
Rachel: Isn’t it amazing? So, how is Sunday over there so far? Pretty good?
Wenn Lawson: It’s pretty good. 25 degrees, a little bit windy, I hope the door won’t make too much noise banging.
Rachel: Ohh, we’ll know what that is then if we hear some banging, that is good to know.
So, Dr. Wenn has a PhD in Psychology and a practice where you do lots of conferences and consultations and you’ve written… 16 books?
Wenn Lawson: Uhm, more like 20+
Rachel: 20+! You’re website is behind!
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, it possibly is, yeah.
Rachel: And you wrote the first one about autism in 1998?
Wenn Lawson: Yeah.
Rachel: That was, in a way, pre-autism-awareness; I think I had maybe heard the word autism, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen times by then. How did you develop such an early awareness?
Wenn Lawson: I read a book by a lass called Donna Williams, she’d written that in 1992 and then another one in ‘96 and I recognized my own story in her words even though we’re very different people.
I got my diagnosis of autism in ‘93, been writing since I was quite small, been writing on everything: bits of paper, napkins. And I had quite the collection of poetry I’d been writing over many years so it was a case of putting that together in a story about my discovery of who I am, as an autistic person. And I managed to get that published which was amazing.
Rachel: And that’s called “A life behind glass”, right?
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, life behind glass.
Rachel: So, how old were you when you got your autism diagnosis?
Wenn Lawson: My autism diagnosis I didn’t get until I was 42.
Rachel: So you were 42 and you had become sort of autism-curious for about a year before that? You were like in your early 40s when these…
Wenn Lawson: I was probably 41 when I got the diagnosis, 42 by the time I got the report.
Rachel: It took a whole year to get the report?
Wenn Lawson: It took 6 months. Ok technically 41 and a half.
Rachel: Wow. That must have been a really long 6 months. I bet it felt a year, that’s why you remember it being a year, my goodness. So, when you got that information, so first you got the information then did you go through the process of “am I, am I not, what’s going on, am I imagining this, is this really me, is this not me?” Or did you look at it and go “Oh my gosh, this is me”? What was that like for you?
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, very mixed because as a 2-year-old I had a diagnosis of intellectual disability and then at 17 schizophrenia and they were both misdiagnoses, they weren’t actually… But a lot of years in and out of mental health institutions, on and off of medication and not doing well at school, I’m dyslexic. So lots of queries over a number of things and I’ve grown up believing that I was less than and not  more and different. It was very hard to have any kind of trust or believe in yourself […] other people are saying. So it was a very mixed badge.
Rachel: Oof. And to live with that until you’re in your 40s. Gracious.
You have a son, yes?
Wenn Lawson: I had three sons and a daughter, two of my sons also on the autistic spectrum, the eldest one and the youngest boy, the middle lad was ADHD, but he got killed when he was 19.
Rachel: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Wenn Lawson: That’s, yeah, 19 years ago now.
Rachel: Oh gosh.
So, when you found out, were your children… I mean, some of them must have been born, we don’t start having tons of children at the age of 40 usually, so…
Wenn Lawson: No, I married at 20, my first son was born when I was 22, my last one when I was 30 and […] the eldest boy is … uhh… don’t get this wrong… I think he’s 45 and my daughter is 43 and the youngest boy is 36… 37!
Rachel: So, how was it for you to be a mother of grown children? Uhm. Ok. Let’s just take a moment here. I really want to address your work in the way that you want it to be addressed. I want to talk about the trans stuff if you wanna talk about the trans stuff, I wanna be respectful about it and I wanna use better language, I wanna say parent instead of gendering your parenthood because I don’t think that’s helpful in the situation.
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, it’s actually not.. it’s actually ok for me because I’m still “Mum” to my kids and I’m just.. I’m just a man-mum. So for me I’m not their father, they have a father, they didn’t want another one. Currently I’m happily called Mum to my kids, we get some funny looks sometimes, in the taxi for example but… you know, it’s fine. I’m still not a 100% ok with that because I think some of that not being ok-ness might be the social construct of what a mother is, as in a female role. I’m very much a male, but I’m still Mum to my kids.
Rachel: Well, that just sounds wonderful and totally embracing the paradox that we all are, because we are all these multidimensional beings so that’s wonderful. So, how old were your kids when you had finally pretty much accepted that you are autistic?
Wenn Lawson: When I finally accepted that I am on the autism spectrum, that I am autistic, my youngest was 12 and the older boy… oh dear, something like 17, 18 I think?
Rachel: Wow, that’s an intense age, that’s amazing. How… Do you feel like it changed your parenting at all?
Wenn Lawson: I don’t think it changed my parenting because my boys they’re on the spectrum themselves. There was always an innate kind of acceptance and understanding between us as a family. So I knew from quite a young age, when they were quite young that change was difficult, things had to be structured, planned and the speaking quite plain language and try to make things really clear and if there was gonna be something that changed that I explained it. Having said that, part of the secondary challenge if you like was something called PDA. Technically that’s pathological demand avoidance which […] word pathological, that just means almost an innate resistance to demand and my kids had that […] too so trying to phrase things in language that demote demand and decrease anxiety was part of the way we lived. That was established from when they were quite young so didn’t really have to change. The only things that needed changing were trying to bring acceptance to the wider family and the wider community like school for example.
Rachel: Right, and school is a challenge. I feel like school for our kids is a challenge no matter what and it becomes even more complicated when you know we’re trying to get accommodations for basic things like “Hey my kid can’t handle fluorescent lights, you know, can we put them by the window?” and it really depends on the teacher of that child. I was really shocked that the hardest part of parenting was getting my kids in a good classroom with a good teacher. It just took all my energy and then it would seem like, you know, you get them into a class and then here was the end of the year already and you had to start the whole process all over again. I can’t imagine with that many kids, I would have been exhausted all the time. I’m very, very impressed.
So, then your kids grew up and they’ve all moved out of the house at this point. Did you suddenly find yourself with oceans of time?
Wenn Lawson: No… I’m one of those people that.. I also have ADHD […] of diagnosed situation so that means I’m quite hyperactive I have a lot of attention issues and I move between things quite rapidly so lots of fingers in lots of pies which is a strange metaphor because there aren’t any fingers in pies it just means doing lots of things simultaneously. So, writing, lecturing, reading, watching videos, making videos, working with lots of people in a variety of ways, I’m better off like that.
Rachel: But you have more time to do those other things now than you did before…
Wenn Lawson: Yes, in theory, in theory. I over-commit, I take on too much, it’s really hard to say no and I love, absolutely love what I do. It gives me life, it doesn’t take my life away, I gain life through activity.
Rachel: I totally understand that, you’re talking to a person who had a Shakespeare company and I did 5 productions in one year, I did all the producing, I did all the directing, I did all the promotions, I designed the sets and the costumes and the lights and the props and then after I did those 5 productions wondered why I was tired. So I understand that, you wanna be busy. It helps to have the mind engaged and if you have intrusive thoughts at all, which I certainly do, being busy and having your focus engaged in I feel like is something of the most therapeutic things that we can possibly do. Do you feel that way, does it work that way?
Wenn Lawson: Yes, that’s very wise and also kind of learning how to be mindful or focusing on the mind and give myself a little bit of distance between the thought that might be upsetting, it can ward me a lot if I can say “Oh, I’m having one of those thoughts, that’s interesting.” then I put myself at a bit of distance from that thought and it doesn’t have such control over me which is very good.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s a really nice habit to be able to do.
Wenn Lawson: I don’t fight it, it’s just.. “ok..”
Rachel: That’s a very Buddhist practice for sure and I feel like one that gets, that really does get easier, the more that you do it, the practice is really an apt phrase, it’s like a muscle, it definitely gets stronger.
So you then began living as an autistic and then at some point you decided to transition to become a man and how old were you when you made that choice? I imagine you had been thinking about it for.. probably forever, I’m guessing, contemplating, trying to understand that part of yourself.
Wenn Lawson: Trying to understand lots of parts of myself without connecting those parts, so an awareness that I didn’t like anyone touching my breasts, I mean not that I would let anybody but my wife or who was then not my wife, my partner, lots of things about fragrance from my body that I wasn’t very good at, not coping with wearing dresses that would flap against the back of my legs, there were so many things that I put down to sensory stuff as an autistic person because I have a lot of sensory issues. I wasn’t recognizing or separating what was sensory, what was gender dysphoria or discomfort. So it was taking me a very very long time, I was always tomboyish, but.. so ok, I’m more of a butch type of woman I thought. It took a long time. I was 61 years old before the light went on and I realized I’m actually a man. And it was an amazing moment and it was incredibly scary because I’m the kind of person once something clicks, I can’t leave it alone, I have to act on it so that meant telling my partner and we’d been in a seemingly lesbian relationship for 30-odd years.
My husband and I separated when the youngest was about 17, so a long time ago. I had no, no way of knowing whether she was gonna stay. But she’s absolutely the love of my life so that was really hard and it was really turbulent and an incredibly difficult time with lots of tears and lots of anger and she said “you lived all this time, why now. You’ve managed so far, why now?” and so I said to her “because now is the moment. I haven’t connected before now.” And she said “I will travel this journey with you. I cannot guarantee how it will make me feel.” but the very thought that she was in the boat with me… was amazing. Yeah. That was… nearly 5 years ago now.
Rachel: That is quite the test of a relationship, wow.
Then you went through this process and now you present as a man and is that wonderful now, does that feel… freeing?
Wenn Lawson: It’s really… You don’t know you’re home until you’re home. You don’t know you’re there until you arrive. And there were all sorts of fears about that journey but an absolute, total […] it was the right journey for me and then as we went through each process of starting hormones, of surgery to remove breasts and all those female parts of myself and then to have lower surgery so I’ll have male genitalia constructed, everything, each step, I never once looked back. I never once missed any aspect of being a woman was and it was really, it was more than confirming, it was how I got joined up. I’ve never been joined up with who I was. There were parts of me that were all scattered. Once that light went on and I pursued that decision, those parts came together and that seeming jigsaw puzzle that pieces were missing, they were found, put together and the picture became whole.
I’ve not ever had one moment of regret.
Rachel: That is just beautiful and the imagery is really gorgeous and I feel like when we’re dissociating because we can’t integrate for whatever reason, when we’re dissociating it takes so much energy to maintain those walls of separation between those parts that we’re trying to keep separate. And when we can integrate those parts of ourselves there’s this tremendous rush of energy and creativity. So did you pump out, at that point did you write 30 books in like 6 months or something? Is that when you wrote all those books?
Wenn Lawson: We wrote… my wife and I wrote a book together, I’ve not ever written with her before. We’ve written a book called, oh dear, what’s it called, uhm “Transitioning together – One couples journey of gender and identity discovery” and that was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, because it was honesty from both of us which included a revelation we’d had no idea we were actually quite codependent and didn’t recognize it.
That was quite interesting because it meant becoming my own person in a way I’d never done before. It was really quite a threat to her because her person depended a lot on who I was and who we were as a couple. And we weren’t a lesbian couple. In fact I’m a heterosexual man and I hadn’t known that. So… lots of things in the book. It’s a love story for sure, but it’s very challenging. It was challenging to write, it is very challenging to read, yeah as well as writing a few other things. But that was the major focus.
Rachel: Well, I love my spouse dearly but every time we have to do a project together it’s a challenge, even without all of that extra incredible, emotional weight of writing something so deeply personal and making yourself so vulnerable.
You must really love each other, that’s all I can say. I think you two are probably one of the most romantic couples in the whole world, that’s my feeling about it.
Wenn Lawson: Aw. She’s the best. She’s totally amazing and she’s autistic as well, having her own kind of issues, so she’s quite a lady, I mean, she really is amazing.
Rachel: I do find us autistics often kind of clump together sometimes. It just seems easier, I think that most of my biological family is probably autistic, I don’t think all of them are, but I think a pretty large portion of them. Enough of them that when I was growing up I didn’t think I needed to mask I just figured this was all normal, this was kind of the way it was.
So, the way that I found you was that I was looking through youtube videos madly, I just dx’d, self-dx’d last November which was just a few months ago so of course the first thing I did was dive into the research because I love research. I did a deep dive into youtube and found your video where you were talking about autism and aging. There is NOTHING else out there! Nothing, nothing nothing!
I was so excited to find that one tiny little video of you talking about this and I really wanna encourage my listeners to go find it. All you need to do is google “Dr. Wenn + autism + aging”. It will be the first and only video that pops up with that subject matter so it’s really difficult not to find it. But, what I’d like to talk about is: How do you feel that autism in terms of aging, how does that affect us? I know that’s a huge question, but I think something that I’ve noticed in myself is I don’t have as much energy as I did in my 20s and that’s just… That’s the way it is. We understand that as we age we don’t get that much energy. But what that means is I have less energy to deal with sensory issues. Is that kind of a common problem?
Wenn Lawson: I think it is because when you’re younger, at least as kids, you know, you go to school, you’re a lot more socially involved because of being a child and expected to join groups and go places. When you get older you actually can make a choice to avoid where there’s lots of people. So in some respects our senses […] come alive but they are jolted more suddenly by the need when we’re out in the world. I think our senses suffer more when we get older, however having said that I think cognitively we do better than non-autistic people because there is some research to show autistic children, as babies, we seem to be born with more plasticity, more brain plasticity, we’re almost at this overconnection to things we’re a bit… ok, this whole process of cognitive decline appears to be slower in autism, so that’s exciting and maybe, maybe we’re even protected against things like alzheimers. You won’t see a lot of alzheimers in the autistic population.
So, I’m very forgetful, I’m a very forgetful person, always have been, that’s part of all the ADHD stuff. Having said that I tend not to forget lifes actual material that’s still quite useful to me, so I might forget where my keys are, I might put the milk in the microwave and not put it in the fridge, don’t quote me on that but I have been known to do that, but in general my memory is… seems to be less declining than in general in the non-autistic population as a fact of aging. That’s good news. It also means that as you age we’re more likely to recognize faces than we have done as younger people, just more likely to build connections. I’m still not very good with faces […] and that’s just something I accept but it seems to be less difficult than it once was and that’s something to gain our interest.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s fascinating. You know, I didn’t know there was a thing called face blindness, prosopagnosia, I just knew that I couldn’t watch movies and keep track of the plot and that all of my husbands coworkers who all wear the same clothes and the same haircut and the same baseball cap that I couldn’t tell them apart at all. I just smile and say hi real big whenever I saw them because I think they were all, you know, Joe, Bob, Jim, I don’t know, it’s terrible and I feel so bad, I feel really, really bad. I actually found out about the prosopagnosia before I found out about the autism and so then when I realized that that along with all those other things that I thought were just me being weird; when I realized that that was part of autism, that was just another thing that made me go “Ohhhhh! My brain is really different, it’s just wired really different and it just cares about different things than an allistic person’s brain cares about.” So, what are some other challenges that you foresee in terms of the aging autistic population and things that you’d like to see?
Wenn Lawson: There are many. There seems to be a higher rate of auto-immune disease for example, in our population, in our community, there’s lots of unemployment and mental health issues due to anxienty. We need accommodations in housing so often people don’t design a home with autism in mind. And our families of course, our families die and they may be our main caretakers. The world isn’t ready for the autistic community, for the aged autistic community and that’s approaching fast and they need to get ready for us. Of course I’m really keen to help that process by sharing information about what we need as older autistics.
Rachel: What would you do to design a house for an aging autistic person?
Wenn Lawson: Well, we need to be listened to. That’s one of the biggest issues. People talk to social workers, psychologists, they talk to everybody else except us and there should be nothing about us without us, nothing about me without me. Even young people and older people who maybe don’t use language, just because you don’t speak certainly does not mean you don’t have anything to say. It just means the communication process will need to happen differently. It might be through technology, through something like typing, […] to text, there’s all sorts of means to be […] that aren’t always spoken and that needs to happen.
Rachel: Do you feel like autistics need private spaces more than most people do?
Wenn Lawson: Absolutely, we sure do! We need private spaces, we need spaces where we can stim and be comfortable, we need spaces to unwind and come down as anybody would but we get wound up more quickly. So things can get to us in various ways faster. We have brains that work with single focused attention. We’re not so good at multi-tasking, unless of course we’re interested then we can, but then actually but the default setting is not a choice. I’ve heard people say he/she/they can do it if they’re interested, implying that we’re just being lazy. But actually interest that switches the autistic brain off that’s quite a different thing. But it also means we’re exhausted rather quickly.
Rachel: So if we were designing… I worked for 30 years doing architectural design, so this is a topic , this is a special interest, so we might linger here for a minute or two. I think knowing what I know now, because when I was designing homes and I really did prefer designing homes, I liked those kind of cozy domestic spaces, but I think if I was designing for an older autistic community I’d put an emphasis on private, quiet spaces with natural light and good soundproofing, maybe a really good ventilation system, being more mindful of odours in terms of cleansers and things that were used. Can you think of anything else that you would have in your dream
Wenn Lawson: Yes, because people do that, they use air fresheners and, gee, that can be an overwhelming thing. When we’re going into a motel for example, we… the smell… before I settle down, I have to unplug those, they’re awful. Absolutely. Things that other people take to mean an enhancement but they’re actually taking life from us rather than enhancing because of things like our sensory system working differently.
Fluorescent light you mentioned earlier, they’re also a trigger of epilepsy, a lot of us live with epilepsy, so…
Rachel: I spent years avoiding them and feeling weird, like I was imagining it all in my head and then I found out ok, it CAN trigger epilepsy and some migraines but again, it wasn’t until I discovered that it’s part of being autistic is that you can be sensitive to fluorescent lights. All those things are simultaneously a huge relief and joyful and also incredibly sad, I feel like the more years that we lived trying to find accommodations for ourselves and not being able to say why. I feel like that’s a particular challenge.
Wenn Lawson: Yeah. The love for natural light and being able to look out through a window, look into the distance, for example, I would feel really caged in if I couldn’t do that.
Rachel: Another topic that I’ve heard you talk about is object permanence and I had an understanding of object permanence from taking child development classes. Becasue I’m uber-analytical and worry too much, of course, you know the first thing I did when I thought maybe I was gonna have children is take a years worth of child development classes and I’m so glad that I did, oh my gosh. I highly recommend that to any prospective parents out there: Take a bunch of child development classes, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. What we learned in child development classes object permanence is that at a certain point – for a long time you can do this kind of hocus pocus magic trick with kids where if they don’t see something, it ceases to exist. And so we can hide the candy behind us and pull out our hand and it’s empty and oh my gosh the candy is completely disappeared, off the face of the earth. But you were talking about your granddaughter I think it was and realizing that she should have developed more object permanence than she had by a certain point and then.. and I’m totally speaking for you and I apologize… I’m paraphrasing here people.
You were talking about that if you would go on a trip it was like they didn’t exist anymore and this resonated sooo deeply with me. Because, I am perfectly aware that if I put a blanket over the hamper, that the hamper is still under there, but the fear and the loss I felt from being separated from people or my pets or anything… overwhelming!
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, and it’s very, very common amongst the autistic population, it’s not something people have been speaking about well enough.
Rachel: Well, it makes me feel dumb. I think it’s embarrassing. You know what I mean? I mean, I’m fine with “ok I don’t remember faces, whatever” but for some reason, this, this part of it makes me feel like “ok, I should have this figured out by now.”
Wenn Lawson: It’s a case of… I accept that this is a difficult thing and I employ a number of strategies to help. So with the grandkids for example when mum was not in view my granddaughter was convinced mum has terminally gone for the rest of her life forever. So… walkie talkies to check. So mum could be in the bedroom upstairs but the walkie talkie would still let my granddaughter know mum was around and we’d done that in each room of the house and after a while you don’t need the walkie talkies, it becomes established object permanence event.
So many ways to build that. I had photographs in my wallet. When I didn’t know if my wife was still around, when I was not in Australia, I could look at her picture and be reminded. There is a number of things we can do. It didn’t always change the way I felt but academically, cognitively I knew she’s still there, I can’t see her but she’s still there. And of course we have skype, mobile phones, to build connections these days we never used to have in the past. But it’s so important, usually object permanence is established in a kids life way before they’re 18 months of age, but I’m finding in adults on the spectrum there’s still a lack of object permanence. It’s really scary.
Rachel: Is that why when I can’t find my scissors, I freak out?
Wenn Lawson: It might be? We’re talking more about things like people and emotions. People sometimes attribute this to a lack of empathy, no no no. This is not a lack of empathy. This is a lack of connection, that’s a completely different thing. When that connection is interrupted, there’s no sense of feeling it was ever there for most. And as autistic people, if we’re not connected it immobilizes us. So finding a way to establish that connection and maintain it is very important.
Rachel: Sooo… sorry, processing here.
Ok, so, I’ve moved like 37 times in my life and I remember lying awake at night and imagining in my head all the previous bedrooms that I had had and I could not fall asleep until I had remembered every single bedroom. So every time I moved it added a new bedroom onto this kind of chain of bedrooms. Is that a kind of object permanence exercise that I was doing or is that something else. What do you think?
Wenn Lawson: I think it’s probably a mix, because object permanence is one thing and needing to do that, save those images, to recall them, to reassure yourself you were part of that, they existed, that would be an object permanence thing. But there’s also this slight disposition to go over and over something to make it real to keep a sense of reality. We have problems predicting. When kids line up their blocks, one in front of the other, as we get older we make lists, as we get even older we lose these lists, we find other ways to create […] continuity but we’re not good at forward thinking because our brains are wired to do one thing at a time. So we’re taking up with the now. So you were also doing that I would suggest as a way of trying to build a sense of certainty.
Rachel: I see. So it’s a combination of trying to establish a pattern that I can understand and feeling familiar with myself and reassured and also that these places still exist.
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, that was real, you didn’t imagine it and it’s gonna be ok if you move again. Eventually it will be ok if you move again and you don’t remember, but that’s harder.
Rachel: Yeah, at a certain point they dropped off and I certainly stopped doing it as an adult and finally I got to live in one house for 12 years and then that stopped and I was able to just go ok, this is where I live, this is fine.
Wenn Lawson: That’s a growing up thing and establishing you know, you knowing yourself thing.
Rachel: Are there things that you feel like are easier as we age? You did mention that there doesn’t seem to be as much alzheimers and things like that and that we can say no to more activities but is there anythign else that you feel like is… that you wake up and go oh my gosh, I’m so glad.
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, there’s so many things that I’m less anxious about. I tell you, one of the biggest things to learn is how to say: “Oh, well.” You know, you spilled the milk? Oh well. If you forget something: Oh well. If you let somebody down. There’s a whole stream of things happening in everyday life that [pours? pools?] incredible anxiety, but learning to say “oh well”. Two things there. You’re accepting yourself with all your flaws, you know warts and all, you’re accepting that life doesn’t always work the way you want it to and you’re actually decreasing anxiety by knowing that simple phrase. I find that very helpful, but that’s taken time.
Rachel: How old were you when you discovered that nugget there?
Wenn Lawson: I would have been in my mid-40s, sure.
Rachel: Oh, that’s pretty precocious, I think that’s pretty good. I was 50 by the time I was like, you know, really not caring about what people thought about what I was wearing and things like that. I’ve talked to other people who found that break at 50. At some point you just go “Oh, wait, I am the grown-up now.”
Wenn Lawson: Yes! You’ve got personal autonomy, you’re in charge of your life. You will not be dictated by the words of others. Well, that’s a hard thing because the world seems to be governed, it’s built on the premise of what others think about you. And really the only important thing is what YOU think about you. It shouldn’t be dictated by how others think about you. That takes a lot of growing up to get to that place.
Rachel: Yeah, I think something that helped me was to realize that I’m just not that important, people really aren’t thinking about me that much.
Wenn Lawson: But when you look at social media you look at all that stuff that’s out there because of modern day technology, it’s all based on the glossy, body image and how people look. Even the glossy magazines for 8-year-olds that are airbrushed, they’re not reality, people don’t do connections to things that are uncomfortable. We don’t talk about death, we don’t see death in our everyday culture. Well, we do from terrible tragedy, terrible things, but I’m talking about having a pet that dies and burying them in the garden and getting used to comings and goings that are a part of life. It’s not something that we propagate.
Rachel: We can’t even talk about menstruation in public and frankly, you know, this is something that half the population does every month for a week and we can’t even just carry a tampon around without feeling embarrassed or ashamed or something. It’s a little peculiar. Just, we got this bodies an dthis is what they do.
Wenn Lawson: We are humans, this is human nature.
And facelifts, you know, getting rid of our wrinkles, I have a 96 year old aunt and she said to me, last year she bought this anti-wrinkle cream and it was guaranteed and she said “it didn’t work”. I said “Auntie Joan, nobody really expects a 96 year old person to get rid of wrinkles” and she said “Well, it’s misinformation, wrong advertising.” She did make us laugh.
I mean why do you wanna get rid of wrinkles? How about aging gracefully and accepting, this is part of life and it should be celebrated, it’s beautiful. I love, I’m thrilled to bits, I’m still alive and I hope to live a lot, many more years yet. I know, none of us knows but to enjoy each day and be thankful.
Rachel: Let’s talk about something you enjoy which is birds. Do you have any birds, do you have parrots in your house, it’s awful quiet.
Wenn Lawson: I don’t have birds in the house, but wild birds outside we have lots. And we’ve had frequently had a magpie family we’ve helped raise the babies of and they’ve sat outside our window which we feed them. We got a couple of magpies who have learned how to mimic things like mobile phones, a dog barking, so that’s lovely. And we have lorikeets, very colorful, rainbow colored birds that I love and lots and lots of others.
Rachel: Do you live out in the country?
Wenn Lawson: I live on the border of one of the largest towns in the southwest of Victoria, it’s a 20 minute walk into town and 4 minutes to the beach. I can actually hear the ocean from my backyard.
Rachel: That sounds wonderful. Did you grow up in that area?
Wenn Lawson: It is, I know, I’m very privileged. I didn’t, we’ve only lived here 17 years. Before that we lived in Melbourne in the city, in the suburb of the city. It was too busy for me. I found it very overwhelming. I think we were there for about 15 years, the kids are still in that direction but… well, I shouldn’t call them kids, they are in their 40s, but… they’re not too far from home, we get to see each other quite a bit, which is good.
Rachel: That’s wonderful. Are there any topics that we missed, that you wanna talk about?
Wenn Lawson: There’s probably aspects to lots, but I think we covered most things with nothing about me without me, which should be our guiding principle for inclusion, younger people, older people, on the spectrum and the way that people change over time, how we need to accommodate those changes, things like architecture, public transport, the medical world, dentists, there is so much… we are uncovering and moving towards, and gain understanding of, it’s a process, it’ll take time.
Rachel: Do you feel there’s a renaissance of understanding happening right now as more adults realizing they are on the spectrum?
Wenn Lawson: Yeah, understanding is growing. We’re currently working on a project called “the hidden histories of autistic people” and that is an oral history project of exploring before diagnosis and after and that’s really, really interesting. We’re also looking quite a lot into the 8th sense of interoception, which people haven’t really taken note of before.
That’s the sense of inner connections to things like “Am I thirsty?” “Am I hungry?” “What temperature am I?”
Rachel: Heck if I know.
Wenn Lawson: Exactly! And if those things are offline how on earth does a person self-regulate? So we will go from zero to 100 in a split second and people say things like “He was alright a moment ago, She was alright a moment ago, what happened?” We flipped our lid without knowing anything about the process of moving to that point where it happens, whereas the non-autistic population become aware of what’s happening, they feel that buildup, we don’t notice it. So we’re working quite a lot in South-Australia where I’ve been working with over a hundred schools now where the interoception is part of their curriculum. The kids have time to do interoceptive exercises.
Rachel: That is so interesting! What is an interoceptive exercise that people could try at home?
Wenn Lawson: Small things, there’s millions of them. Stretching your hand, holding that stretch for 30 seconds, noting… where do you feel that? Is it between your fingers, is it in your wrist, your elbow? Then you repeat the exercise, stretch again for 30 seconds and note again, where did you feel that? What you’re doing is you’re building up an acquaintance of inner feeling that we’ve not had in the past. So for years I always wore a baseball cap because I didn’t know where I ended. I didn’t have an essence of my body and my hands, what was part of me what wasn’t, what was self, what was other. Exercises for interoception build that sense of self. And that means we’re able to regulate so much better, our emotions because we feel them coming on. So it’s right for young people at school who go into what we call a meltdown quite quickly, noticing in South Australia 50-60% less exclusions are happening in schools – kids that get excluded from school for bad behavior, being challenging. I hate “bad behavior” because it’s actually a behavior that’s saying “I need help”.
You can look it up, look up interoception and you’ll read lots about it. Object permanence and building that connection, interoception and building that connection, these are all things that help build confidence in self. They’re giving us a place where we’re able to have self-autonomy.
Rachel: Well, this has been absolutely as fascinating as I knew it would be, getting to talk to you and I would love to talk to you again anytime you have a subject that you’d like to express to all my listeners. Do you have any talks coming up or books coming out that you’d like to let people know about?
Wenn Lawson: I’m currently working on chapters in various books for things like gender identity, girls on the spectrum, also interoception, object permanence. So there’s the things I’m writing about. In May I’ll be going to Europe on a sort of 7-week lecture tour, I’d love to come to the states, especially Portland in Oregon I have some friends there that I met online and to see them in the flesh that would be cool.
Rachel: We would love to have you here. What would you like to say to our listeners?
Wenn Lawson: Oh golly. Uh, thank you for listening, I really hope that some of the essence of this discussion finds a home in your hearts as well as your minds. I have a webpage and an email-address, you can always contact me for further questions and discussion.
Rachel: What’s the webpage called?
Wenn Lawson: It’s simply www.wennlawson.com
Rachel: And there will be a link to that on the webpage for the podcast.
Dr. Wenn, thank you so much.
Wenn Lawson: Thank you for the opportunity, Rachel!
Rachel: You’re welcome and thank you for being Actually Autistic!