Kate E. Reynolds

  • Sarah Hendrickx'sTalk

    Last Friday I attended a talk by Sarah Henrickx, who has written several books and talks about sexuality, relationships and so-called 'higher functioning' autism, such as Asperger syndrome. The invitation came through a quiet email last academic year from my daughter's school. I instantly seized on the name as a person renowned in the field.

    In a morning of witty anecdotes, perhaps the funniest occurrence was when I sat in the foyer talking to an old friend who was also there for the talk. I informed her with authority that Sarah Hendrickx was 'really well known' in autism - not recognising that the woman on the opposite side of the table was Ms Hendrickx herself. I discovered this when she was greeted by a member of school staff and ushered upstairs to the room for her talk.

    Couched in a series of humourous stories, Sarah Hendrickx guided us through the basic features of Aspergers, such as:

    - Being literal in understanding others

    - Difficulty making and maintaining friendships

    - Sensory issues

    - Having encyclopaedic knowledge of the chosen, special subject

    - Blunt, descriptive honesty in communicating with others with a disregard for and lack of knowledge of social norms

    Interestingly, Sarah Hendrickx spoke of teens on the autism spectrum wanting solitude and that, as parents and caregivers, we had to balance that desire with the social need for our young people to engage with society to exist. Some documented work by those on the autism spectrum contradicts the idea that they desire to be alone, but rather that our young people are ostracised from social activities, so being alone is safer and a survival method. Acknowledging that it is important to engage with the outside is a crucial massage for parents and caregivers, who may find it easier to allow their young people to exist solo in a bedroom, than persuade them to enter the social world at any level.

    From my perspective, we have to consider what will happen as we parents and caregivers become older and less able and when we die. We have a duty to enable our young people as much as possible to, not only survive, but thrive when we no longer are here. It isn't enough to hope that others will take over when we no longer can manage. We need to support independence as far as is possible and create a supportive series of contacts for our young people; contacts who are younger than we parents/caregivers and can enable our young people on the spectrum into the future.

    Sarah Hendrickx discussed the misunderstanding of friendships which our young people may have. She pointed to the fact that they may like to engage socially in a friendship at a given time, then push it aside for other considerations, then pick up the friendship only as the need or desire arose. This perception of friendships ignores the need to nurture social contacts with texts, emails and phone calls, for example. A social event with a friend, then silence for several weeks then expecting to pick up the friendship isn't generally how friendships are expected to develop in a neurotypical world. In fact, some friendships could completely stall without being socially tended. I found it interesting that Sarah Hendrickx's boyfriend, who attended with her, was quite happy to state that she was his only friendship.

    As I found with my daughter, our young people on the spectrum fail to see the point of 'small talk' or the more malicious (in my view) 'gossip'. I find it impossible to describe why gossip is seen to be of such entertainment value to many people, particularly women. I feel proud that my daughter steers clear of much gossip. As she tells me, she prefers the boys who are more 'straight forward' and say what they mean and don't carry grudges - something we women are prone to do!

    Perhaps the most important thing that was mentioned is that many of we parents will have autistic traits, if not be regarded as being on the autism spectrum. This has implications for what we expect our young people to do. Many of us enjoy our own company and would be reluctant to encourage our offspring to lead very different lives to our own. Unless we have a clear understanding of how we function socially and the need to engage socially, even if at a modest level, we may not be as supportive to our children as we need to be for their futures.

    Sarah Hendrickx engaged in series of lively questions and informative answers at the end of the session. She was well worth a listen.

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Kate E Reynolds - blogging

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