What older people want: Sex, skydiving and tattoos

May 20, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Today sees the publication of a report that Steve Broome and I wrote on behalf of Hanover Housing Association, as part of the Hanover@50 debate. It’s called ‘Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos: The end of retirement and the dawn of a new old age?’ and it explores perceptions of ageing, the implications of these for how older people are regarded in society, and what we need to do differently.

Photo by Emma Lindley

Photo by Emma Lindley

In recent years, older people have increasingly been characterised as a social and economic burden. As life-spans get longer, and the need to provide for older people’s social, economic and care needs grows, we have ended up regarding older people as a problem. The language used about older people is frequently patronising and paternalistic, and this shapes attitudes, influencing how older people are treated as well as how they see themselves.

I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.

In our report, we argue that the time is ripe to turn the issue of ageing on its head. We need to move away from a culture that regards old age as inherently undesirable, perceives older people as having nothing to contribute to society and focuses on the economic ‘burden’ of caring for the ageing population.

Could it be that older people actually represent a tremendous untapped resource? If so, how can we shift culture, remodel how we accommodate older people and attend to their care needs, whilst enabling them to continue to contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them and useful to all of us?

In order to explore these issues, we conducted a literature review and held four focus groups made up of:

  • Retirement community residents aged over 70
  • Fellows of the RSA aged over 70
  • A ‘transitioners’ group aged 57-70
  • A ‘millenials’ group of people aged 21-32

In each of these focus groups we asked participants to tell us what comes to mind when they think of old age. We showed them a range of images of older people and asked them what they thought about those images, and used a range of ‘springboard’ techniques to stimulate discussion.

The results were extremely enlightening and sometimes surprising. The retirement community residents said they were happy to be described as ‘pensioners’, saying they saw it as stating a fact about them. The RSA Fellows disagreed, feeling that that it carried connotations of inactivity, stagnation and marginalisation (as in being ‘pensioned off’).

This divergence in views around the word points to the possibility that new, positive language could reinforce a sense of empowerment and enable older people to keep contributing to society in various ways as they continue to age. For the RSA Fellows, being active professionally and feeling that they maintained a degree of influence were important elements of identity, while for the Hanover residents, this was less important that being socially active, although volunteering, and keeping up with the issues that were of interest to them before retirement were also very important to them.

The ‘transitioners’ group expressed a range of views about what it feels like and represents to be approaching old age. With 65 as the traditional marker for the beginning of old age, some members of the group talked about the way they don’t recognise themselves as being ‘old’ and felt instead that ‘late middle age’ is a phase of life that lasts longer for their generation.

I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful

When we showed this image of an older couple kissing in bed, reactions were diverse across the groups. Most strikingly for me, the ‘millenials’ group (which I’m only just too old to belong to) responded with almost unanimous distaste.


Image via http://www.dirtycentaurpictures.com/page/3

Image via http://www.dirtycentaurpictures.com/page/3

Comments included:

I’m sorry but that’s just wrong. I don’t want to see that. Nobody wants to see that.” (Female, 20s, Millennials).

I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful.” (Male, 20s, Millenials).

By contrast, reactions were overwhelmingly positive from members of the other three groups:

Oh, yes, now that’s lovely. It’s so refreshing to see. It makes me so happy to see that. There should be more pictures like that in the media.” (Female, 80s, Hanover)

Ah, that’s an unfamiliar image. You don’t see much of that sort of thing. Sexual images of older people should be more commonly available.” (Female, 60s, Transitioners).

Great, that’s great. They’re in love. I love it. Most people would hate it. Young people would hate it, definitely.” (Female, 70s, RSA Fellows).

The negative reactions from the Millenials group were certainly surprising to me. Coming from a culture that is saturated with sexual images, many of which are far more salacious than this, one might assume that the younger generation would be indifferent to an image like this. The revulsion that some members of the group showed appeared to be purely on the grounds that the people in the image are older. It is noteworthy that one member of the RSA Fellows group predicted that young people would not like the image, and that the comment “I don’t want to see that,” was followed with “nobody wants to see that,” indicating the view that even older people would prefer not to be exposed to an image like this.

Although we were surprised by the vehemence of this disgust, in the context of a society that is overflowing with imagery that champions youth, assumes that getting old is fundamentally unattractive (especially for women) and side-lines older people as having no useful purpose to serve, it is, at least understandable.

So, what do we do? In our paper we suggest three potential ways forward.

  • The word ‘retirement’ is part of the problem – we should abolish it. Retirement literally means withdrawing from active life. Whether or not older people continue in paid work, they should be encouraged, enabled, and even expected to remain active, in whatever capacity they can, until the end of their lives.
  • Society needs to completely rethink older people’s care. Policymakers and providers must lead a move away from institutional care that disempowers people and forces them into passive dependence. They must develop models of care with roots in the community, for instance by enabling older people to share their homes with each other or younger members of the community.
    • These changes should be part of a broader campaign to reposition older people’s place in society. Demographic changes mean that older people not only should be but have to be seen as a part of our human and social capacity. The point is not that older people are all ‘wise’ but rather that there are enormous reserves of experience and time that we are not currently drawing on. It is up to us to choose to see them in this way rather than as a cumbersome burden. This could include a think tank run by older people with a remit that covers the entire spectrum of social issues facing all of us.
  • Industry should look at the design of products, buildings and services that older people use. Most age-related goods and services are needlessly vanilla. They are overly institutional and bland in perspective and design. A specialist design agency could rethink design, revitalising and popularising products to make them appealing to everyone, not just older people.

I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.  Such an investment will reap huge rewards for all of us.

Dr Emma Lindley is Senior Researcher at the RSA’s Social Brain Centre – you can follow her @DrEmmaLindley



Are we all mad? Or is it just the psychiatrists?

May 13, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today, the Division of Clinical Psychology has issued a statement that essentially says that our system for diagnosing mental illness is unreliable, lacks validity and is not fit for purpose. This follows a similar statement from the American National Institute for Mental Health last week in which it was announced that NIMH would not be using the new DSM-V (the prescribing manual for mental disorders) because of concerns about its validity and use value. These two announcements are of tremendous significance, and could herald the beginning of a bona fide revolution in how we respond to and treat mental illness.

I think that mental health services will change so radically within my lifetime that they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation

For several years I’ve been saying, albeit tentatively, that I think that mental health services will change so radically within my lifetime that they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation. I really hope these recent announcements are the beginning of that transformation.

Arguments about the revisions to the DSM have been simmering for a long time, and the new issue is already several years later in being published than expected. You could look at this as a predictable and relatively insignificant resurgence of the long held divisions between psychology (which assumes mental distress is caused by traumatic life events) and psychiatry (which treats mental illness like any other physical condition, and assumes causes are biological).

You could regard it as being politically driven – in both the UK and US, the cost of mental illness is utterly unsustainable, and anyone who’s ever taken time to look at the figures will know that a majority of prison inmates have a history of mental illness. As Barack Obama put it rather starkly, it’s easier for a mentally ill person to buy a gun than to get proper treatment in the US. In the UK, the political narratives are spun separately, with few people joining the dots to see what’s really going on.

it’s easier for a mentally ill person to buy a gun than to get proper treatment in the US

On the one hand, mental illness is on the rise. It costs us £36 billion a year, in sickness absence, unemployment, not to mention treatment. The pharmaceutical industry produces more and more psychotropic medications, most of which are incredibly expensive, and all of which are developed on relatively limited understandings of how they work or why they work (if they work, which, frequently, they don’t). On the other hand, the voices of mental health service users are finally started to be heard, and the resounding message is that things need to be done differently. In support of that, both the critical psychology movement, and critical psychiatry movement have both been asking questions with increasing urgency. Running alongside are parallel problems around mental illness and employment; mental illness and education, and mental illness and social exclusion. All of this needs unpicking and exploring in a lot more detail.

This week is mental health awareness week, and the focus is on physical activity and its benefits for mental health. I’m fully in support of this, and a firm believer in the importance of physical health for mental health. But it strikes me that there are bigger and more important issues happening too.

My PhD thesis, Making sense of mental illness: The importance of Inclusive Dialogue, goes into some of these arguments in a lot more detail, some of which I hope to return to and develop in another blog post.

Fergie, Football and Photos

May 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

It’s been a big week for Manchester, what with Fergie finally hanging up his hat at United, and the arrival of his replacement, David Moyes. I’m not, have never been and doubt I will ever be, a fan of football. But having grown up in an industrial town in West Yorkshire, my Dad being a lifelong and committed Chelsea supporter, and living much of my adult  in Manchester and Liverpool, football has been unavoidable.

Via @thecelticwiki

Via @thecelticwiki

I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I know very little about the details of the beautiful game and am not especially interested in improving my understanding of the rules. However, there are many things about football and the cultures it carries that capture my imagination. Sitting in pubs with my friends, seeing the way the results of a Chelsea game  impact on my Dad’s mood, or being caught up in the strange, edgy feel that takes over the city I live in when there’s a Manchester derby going on, I’ve made observations and maintained an interest in football because of what it means to people around me.

When the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, made a throwaway statement about Alex Ferguson being the ‘greatest living Briton’, it was quite surprising. But the comments he made by way of justification on Radio 4 this week were fascinating, moving, and highlighted precisely some of the things I’ve noticed about why football and its influential leaders matter so much.

Whether you subscribe to the view that it is the opiate of the masses,  a tool of political oppression, see it as the front-end of everything that’s wrong with capitalism, or simply enjoy the game, you can’t deny that football is a powerful social force.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about football is its aesthetic. Although I’ve never sat and watched an entire game on telly, have only been to one ‘actual’ match (Liverpool v Fulham at Anfield in 1998), I always like looking at the photographs in the sports pages. The expressions on players’ faces, the shots of people caught, mid-air in infeasible positions, all that biting and scowling – it’s all very guttural and just so interesting.

The picture above, which I was shown over dinner last night, is a particularly striking example. Bobby Murdoch, the terrifying chap on the left of the shot, seems to exude fury in a way that’s easily as palpable as more recent images of players being actually aggressive. On the right, Ferguson’s body language is incredible. The expression on his face, the position of his hands, the relaxed fingers, left leg softly at ease – everything about his stance is placating, non-confrontational.

I know practically nothing about what had actually happened in the game, but the power of the image to communicate so much about one moment makes it possible to imagine – even for someone like me who is ignorant and naive about such things. And for those who do know and care, the image is even more transporting.

The comments on this discussion forum include, “every time I see that image I feel like shouting HIT HIM BOBBY, HIT HIM!’, and “you can see the fear in Sir Alex’s face and you can also see what is causing that fear when you look at Bobby”. What I interpreted as an expression indicating Fergie backing off, apologising for something, looks to Celtic fans like fear, justifiable fear.

So, although this post is kind of about Ferguson and football, it’s really about photos. As a researcher, one of the most interesting challenges is finding ways to get people to tell you about things on their own terms. If you ask someone a question, they will give you an answer, and much depends on how you frame the question.

“Are footballers aggressive?” although closed, and only requires a ‘yes/no’ response, is actually very leading. By asking if footballers are aggressive, you’re planting the seed that they might be, therefore making it more likely that the person you’re asking will consider all the examples they can think of of footballers being aggressive before they answer. The fact that you’re asking them to stereotype and generalise is obviously rather problematic too.

Show them a photo, like the one above, and ask them “What’s happening here?”, and you’ve got a much higher chance of getting closer to the nitty gritty of what they think aggression between footballers actually is. Juxtapose it with an image like the recent one of the Suarez biting incident, and you’ll find out even more, on a deeper level about their perceptions, beliefs and understandings.

via edition.cnn.com

via edition.cnn.com



Get Britain Cycling

April 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Get Britain Cycling‘, the report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into cycling has been published today. I attended one of the inquiry sessions at Westminster earlier this year, where I was able  to listen to expert witnesses give evidence on cycling, so it’s exciting to see what came of it.

get britain cycling

The report emphasises the need for urgent action to help get Britain cycling and highlights the range of ways in which cycling can play a significant role in addressing problems that need to be tackled. These include sedentary lifestyles and obesity, air pollution from cars and our increasingly congested towns and cities.

The major conclusion is that there are “massive and unnecessary” barriers which prevent people from taking to their bicycles. The report insists that we need a bold vision from government to get Britain cycling, which, like many things, really rests on top down support. It also talks about the need for a “fundamental cultural shift” in how Britons think about travel.

The report calls for a target of increasing cycle journeys from the current less than 2 per cent of journeys to 10 per cent by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050. It suggests that to do this we will need a national cycling champion and a national action plan. Key elements the report identifies that will be needed include:

  • Better, more consistent and more coherent funding
  • Incorporating the needs of cyclists at every stage of road design
  • Safe speed limits (20mph in all residential streets)
  • Training and education (for children and adults)
  • Political leadership

The issue of funding is clearly key, and the impact of long term lack of investment in cycling shouldn’t be underestimated. Outside London, less than £2 a head is spent on cycling in England – compare that with the £24 a head spent in Holland and you can see why the Dutch are leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of having a national cycling culture.

I haven’t yet read the full report, but the headlines from the summary and recommendations seem to me to hit the nail on the head. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been examining the issue of cycling in recent months. From the perspective of the Social Brain Centre, the need to get people cycling can be seen as a behaviour change challenge, and I’ve been working on ways which small steps can be taken to contribute to what the report has called a fundamental cultural shift.

There is a need to normalise cycling, as well as the very urgent need to invest in better infrastructure to make it safer and more appealing. Part of the process of normalising cycling is to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of cycling, and it is this side of things that we’re intending to focus on in the action research currently under development.

Watch this space for more on that as it develops. In the mean time, the report is going to be presented to the government, and a coalition of charities and cycling organisations, led by the Times, have set up an e-petition calling on the government to implement the recommendations. If you agree that it’s time to get Britain cycling, do your bit and sign the petition now!


Earth Day

April 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s Earth Day, the 43 year old annual environmental awareness day, observed internationally. It’s pretty amazing, really, that its founder, Gaylord Nelson, had the vision do something to  “activate individuals and organizations to strengthen the collective fight against man’s exploitive relationship with the planet” back in 1970.

Via google

Via google

There’s lots I’d like to say about it, but I’m busily working on the RSA’s own project which we hope will go some way towards activating individuals to reconsider their part in our collective exploitation of the earth. So, for now, I’ll just point you to a few of the links that have caught my eye.

You’ve probably checked out Google’s Doodle, whether you intended to or not. There’s some good musing about the Google Doodle and Google’s commitment to environmental causes on the Guardian’s environment blog. Also from the Guardian, a great selection of images from around the world. The Mirror’s live updates from around the world include more great pictures.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Google’s Doodle seems to be more of a news story than Earth Day itself, but it seems to be the case whether you look to sources in India, here or in the states.

And of course, #earthday is trending on Twitter, where you’ll find everything from people letting us know it represents a good opportunity to walk around naked, displaying what looks like climate denial masked as cavalier humour, posting stunning time-lapse video to remind us of our planet’s beauty, and the odd bit of Native American food for thought.


Bursting the Twitter bubble

April 17, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…

Image via www.singleblackmale.org
Image via www.singleblackmale.org

Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’  She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.

I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.

Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.

Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.

I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.

On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.

In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?

My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about  professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.

They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.

But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.

Disabled? Say hello to hard times

April 8, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain 

Today marks the beginning of the end of Disability Living Allowance. As of now, new applicants in the North East and North West will be assessed for the coalition government’s replacement for the non-means tested benefit, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Anyone whose award is up for review will go through the PIP assessment process, and the plan is that by 2018, more than 400,000 people who currently get DLA will not get PIP. This means that around 20% of people who currently receive DLA will lose the benefit all together.

Image via willstleger.wordpress.com

Image via willstleger.wordpress.com

The narratives attached to the need for welfare reform and benefits cuts are powerful, and the government has done a reasonably good job of convincing the nation that it is essential to reduce spending on welfare if our economy is to recover. The particular focus on disabled people, and DLA especially plays into our distaste at the idea of anyone languishing on a ‘lifetime’ benefit with no checks to see if they continue to be disabled ‘enough’ to deserve it.

DLA is also ripe for being framed as unpalatable because of the fact that it isn’t means-tested. It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same. This was designed to reflect the fact that being disabled is expensive, whether you have a visible, physical disability like multiple sclerosis, an invisible, chronic condition like lupus, or an intermittent, unpredictable illness like schizophrenia. In any of these cases, and regardless of a person’s income, DLA can make the difference between being able to work or not, eat properly or not, get around or not.

It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same.

This excellent personal account shows how DLA has made it possible for Mark Harper to continue working and illustrates the many small ways in which it enables him to have a better quality of life in spite of living with a painful neurological condition. As Mark points out, the obsession with employment as the panacea for all our nation’s economic ills is actually undermined by removing the sorts of benefits that make it possible for some people with disabilities to work at all.

DLA certainly wasn’t perfect, and the one-size-fits-all approach to assessing disability has always been ludicrously inflexible. For example, one of the measures of disability the distance a person can walk. Under the old DLA structure, 50 metres was the crucial distance that determined whether or not a person was eligible for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The PIP framework is more than halving this to 20 metres, and there’s plenty to say about the arbitrariness of this heavy handed and unfair change, but to focus on that would overlook the ridiculousness of using the ability to walk a certain distance as a key way of assessing a person’s mobility.

There are many serious physical disabilities which don’t affect one’s ability to walk. There are many disabilities which threaten people’s mobility even though they might be assessed as being physically the same as a non-disabled person. For someone with a learning disability, for example, being able to get around the world safely is not necessarily about moving one leg in front of the other so much as understanding dangers posed by traffic, navigating confusing routes through cities, and social vulnerability. What about a person with agoraphobia or extreme depression?

The transition from DLA to PIP is happening in phases, so those who were once promised ‘lifetime’ DLA support, or who are in the middle of a fixed term award have another couple of year’s grace before the major changes kick in, unless they experience a change in their disability. But the process has begun, there is no stopping it, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people are fearful for their futures because of it.


Autism and employment: rethinking the challenges

April 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Brain 

What do you know about autism? Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s some kind of brain condition that is linked to genius. Maybe you have a vague notion that it’s caused by childhood immunisations, or affects children not adults, boys not girls. Maybe you’ve read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and therefore know everything there is to know.


Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so I can’t help but give the topic some attention, especially as the Action and Research Centre here at the RSA is in the early stages of planning a piece of work involving improving opportunities for people with autism.

It feels timely to mention our intention to do this work, not least because of the emphasis in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2013: “This international attention is essential to address stigma, lack of awareness and inadequate support structures. Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential”.

Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential

A few facts, then. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability – on its own, it isn’t a learning disability or mental health condition, although some people with autism might also be affected by these.  Autism is characterised by a ‘triad of impairments‘, which refers to difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Importantly, it’s a spectrum condition, which means that the way the three types of impairment affect people varies, and rather than being a single fixed condition, it encompasses many different subgroups of experience.

There’s a lot that is still not known about autism – how it is caused, whether ‘cure’ is possible. There’s also a lot of controversy surrounding how these unknowns should be approached, including a growing movement that advocates for celebrating difference instead of looking for a cure. It can all get quite divisive, especially between parents who passionately believe, for example in behavioural modification therapies and those who prefer to find ways of accommodating autistic self-expression.

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know all that much about autism, and I certainly still wouldn’t profess to have much in the way of knowledge about it. But, I do have a bit of experience, as a result of having had the privilege of being an occasional support worker for children and young people with autism.

Through the independent support agency, Time Specialist Support, I’ve got to know a number of young people with autism and, for fear of descending into cliche, have learnt a huge amount as a result. Many of the important lessons haven’t been about the ‘problem of autism’ so much as the problems created by our social world and the norms we work within. Considering these things from the perspective of a child with autism throws up a gamut of frustrating and bewildering challenges, but when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of  being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity.

when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of  being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity

Only 15% of adults with autism have a job, although most are able and would like to work. The challenges involved in getting and doing a job are massive, but not necessarily because of the autism itself so much as the structures we take for granted as being integral and neccessary. It’s these challenges, and how employers can help diminish them that we’re interested in finding out more about at the RSA. It’s very early days, but, the Enterprise team and Social Brain Centre intend to collaborate to examine the processes of change that might need to happen in order to properly support adults with autism to work.

We are currently in early discussions with organisations interested in creating more autism-friendly work places, and helping autistic people realise their employment potential, to address the rather shocking unemployment statistics among this group. One of the options we are exploring is to run a challenge prize on this subject, combining a mixture of specialist expertise, entrepreneurial business models, design and technology.

There are a few examples of trailblazers in this area, but there are also plenty of disappointing and tokenistic attempts to employ autistic adults. As we develop our ideas and plans, we would very much welcome anecdotes, examples, comments and suggestions, so do get in touch with me or Julian Thompson.



Stigma of mental illness? Alive and well

March 25, 2013 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The stigma of mental illness is alive and well. Despite the fact that campaigns like Time to Change have been working hard to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people with mental health conditions, it seems that it’s still all too easy to casually slip into a culture of blame.

family in shadow

Image via guardian.co.uk

A short article in the Guardian published this morning reported the results of a study that indicated a link between being a child of parents with mental health problems and being at risk of harm. That such a link exists is troubling, and our response to this ought to emphasise the need for better provision of support where it is needed most.

Maev Kennedy’s piece starts with very much the wrong tone, with the sub-heading: “Report by Ofsted and Quality Care Commission reveals that 30% of adults with mental health problems have children.” This reads as though a shocking number of (by implication) irresponsible and dangerous parents with mental health problems have children, and really ought not to.

Kennedy doesn’t make a comparison with overall figures for having children. The stats are a little difficult to decipher, but my interpretation is that roughly 39% of couples across the population have children, so what is striking amongst people with mental health problems is that the proportion having children is significantly lower.

The case example Kennedy chooses to provide is that of a mother whose children “were only taken into care when their mother went into hospital” going on to describe a woman who had not showered for six months, rarely left the house and spent most days asleep. It sounds as though this woman was suffering from crippling depression, and was in desperate need of proper help and intervention, not for her children to be taken into care as soon as she began to show signs of distress.

Kennedy’s piece finishes with the damning line, “although an estimated 30% of adults who experience mental health problems have children, there is no national obligation to notify relevant authorities or collect information on how they are coping.” This almost makes it sound as though having a mental health problem is akin to being a paedophile, and that some sort of national register should exist to monitor the parenting abilities of anyone who experiences difficulties with their mental health.

My guess is that the piece was written quickly and that its author probably did not intend to produce an article that exhibits stigma and has a tone of judgement and blame. However, it is this type of subtle stigma that perpetuates damaging stereotypes and allows marginalisation and othering of people with mental illnesses to continue.

Paying attention with poetry

March 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s World Poetry Day.

As an English Literature undergraduate, I spent many a happy hour absorbed in the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams. More or less a celebrity in his native USA, he’s relatively unknown here.

Image via blogs.suntimes.com

His poems often convey a certain haecceitasthe quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action. It’s especially clear in these two of his most famous poems:

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in

the icebox
and which
you were probably

for breakfast
Forgive me

they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

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