Ahead of Jacquiline den Houting’s appearance at the 2017 Autism West Symposium in November 2017, Nick McAllister caught up with her for an exclusive interview.
You were diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at 25. How did the diagnosis impact you? Do you consider age 25 a late diagnosis?
Being identified as Autistic was, more than anything, a relief.
I finally had an explanation for all the struggles I had experienced up until that point and finally understood why I had never really felt like I “fit in”.
Knowing that I was Autistic allowed me to give myself permission to stop trying to be this thing I wasn’t – a neurotypical person – and just work on being the best Autistic version of myself.
As I started getting into autism advocacy, I came to realise that being Autistic also made me a part of the broader disability community. Making the shift to start thinking of myself as a disabled person was actually more difficult than accepting my Autistic identity. I think that was largely because, like most people, I had preconceived ideas about what it meant to be disabled, and I didn’t see myself as fitting that. As my understanding of disability has grown, I have become a lot more comfortable with that aspect of my identity. I have learnt a lot from the disability community which has enabled me to be a more effective advocate, both for my own needs and also as part of the Autistic community.
I do think 25 is late to be identified as Autistic.
There are certainly lots of people out there who don’t discover their Autistic identity until much later than 25, but the average age for autism diagnosis these days is four years old, so 25 is definitely late compared to that. Having said that, Asperger’s didn’t even exist as a diagnosis until I was five, so being diagnosed in adulthood is pretty typical for my generation. I often wonder how my life may have been different if I knew I was Autistic when I was younger. On the one hand, I think my school years and mental health could have been better with the right support; but on the other hand, I worry that people may have underestimated my abilities and not provided me with the same opportunities for success.
A previous interviewee, Barb Cook, stated that there is an autism gender gap. Do you believe this is the case as a woman and an advocate on the spectrum?
Yes, there is absolutely a gender gap in autism, and there has been a lot of research coming out in the last few years trying to address our lack of knowledge around the typical presentation of autism in females. Statistically, around four times as many boys are identified as Autistic than girls, but I believe that the actual rates of autism are probably much closer than that – boys are just more likely to be recognised and diagnosed than girls.
I also think that it’s important not to over-emphasise the binary genders in conversations around autism and gender. We need to be careful about using terms like “female autism” and “male autism”, because there are many Autistic males who present with more typically “female” characteristics of autism, and vice-versa. It’s also important to keep in mind that we have a large community of Autistic people who are transgender or non-binary gender – Autistics are far more likely to be gender non-conforming than non-Autistic people – so we need to ensure that we’re not erasing that section of our community.
What drove you to become a professional psychologist?
If I’m honest, I really just fell into my career as a Psychologist. I have always had an interest in psychology and understanding how other people think, probably because I could recognise that my way of thinking was different from most people. At university, I studied psychology and criminology with the aim of becoming a Forensic Psychologist. I always had an interest in understanding criminal behaviour, perhaps because I spent so much time and effort doing my best to conform to societal expectations, and I was fascinated that people would deliberately choose to break those social conventions.
Six months after graduating university, I found myself being offered my second “real” job as a prison Psychologist. At that time, it was my dream job, but a requirement of getting the job was that I complete the two-year internship which would see me granted registration as a fully qualified Psychologist. I hadn’t actually intended to complete the internship, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It’s now six years since I first registered myself as a fully qualified Psychologist, and I still smile on the inside every time I get to say “I’m a Psychologist”.
For those who don’t know much or anything about the neurodiversity movement, can you tell us a little about it?
There seem to be a lot of misconceptions out there about neurodiversity and the neurodiversity movement. I see a lot of people on social media say things like “I don’t believe in neurodiversity”, or “Neurodiversity is no use to my non-speaking child”, and those statements are almost always based in a misunderstanding of the basics of neurodiversity.
At its very simplest, neurodiversity refers to the differences that we all have in terms of how our brains are structured and function. Just like we all have different skin colour, eye colour, and hair, we also all have different brains – that’s neurodiversity.
The neurodiversity movement is a group of advocates who all believe specific things about neurodiversity. We believe that neurodiversity is a good thing – that it’s important and valuable to have people with all different types of brains in the world. We believe that no particular brain is better than any other brain – non-autistic brains aren’t better than Autistic brains, and vice-versa. Most importantly, we believe that all people are entitled to full and equal human rights, and that all people should have those human rights respected, regardless of how their brain works.
…all people are entitled to full and equal human rights, and that all people should have those human rights respected, regardless of how their brain works.
You spent five years working as a prison psychologist with Queensland Corrective Services. if a prisoner identifies with being autistic, what measures are in place to safe guard and support them whilst they serve their sentence?
Firstly, I think it’s important to point out that research shows Autistic people are more likely to be victims of crime rather than offenders, and we really should be concentrating more on efforts to keep Autistic people safe from victimisation.
…research shows Autistic people are more likely to be victims of crime rather than offenders, and we really should be concentrating more on efforts to keep Autistic people safe from victimisation.
The criminal justice system is very complex, and there are a whole range of different ways that offenders are dealt with, depending on their individual circumstances. Some Autistic offenders – particularly those with co-morbid intellectual disability or significant mental illness – are diverted out of the mainstream criminal justice system and into other systems, where their needs can be met more appropriately. In the time I spent working in the mainstream criminal justice system, I only met a handful of prisoners who identified as Autistic. Because the prison environment is very regulated, with clear rules and routines, most of the Autistic prisoners I met actually coped relatively well with their time in custody.
Having said that, though, there wasn’t a lot of support available for the few who didn’t cope so well. Autistic prisoners would be “flagged” in the computer system so that staff were aware of their neurodivergence, and often these prisoners would be accommodated in unofficial “special needs” units along with other prisoners who needed extra support. Largely, though, the support provided to Autistic prisoners depended on the knowledge, abilities, and resources of the psychological and custodial staff in each prison, meaning that the level of support prisoners received varied widely across the state, and might even change from day-to-day depending on which staff were rostered on to work.
Your advocacy interests include sexuality and gender identity in the autism community. How has this affected you as an autistic lesbian, and have you faced any discrimination?
I find the intersection between the LGBTI+ community and the Autistic community really fascinating. Of the Autistic people I know, I would guess that somewhere between half and three-quarters are also LGBTI+, and I’ve recently seen research which found that about half their Autistic participants were LGBTI+. From my personal experiences, I’ve found that the Autistic community is extremely inclusive and accepting regarding sexuality and gender identity. Maybe that’s because so many of us are LGBTI+ – if you’re gay or trans yourself, you’re probably less likely to discriminate against other gay or trans people.
From my personal experiences, I’ve found that the Autistic community is extremely inclusive and accepting regarding sexuality and gender identity.
The broader LGBTI+ community isn’t always so great at intersectionality. I think there’s definitely room for improvement in terms of making LGBTI+ events more accessible for Autistic people and disabled people more generally. In terms of discrimination, of course I’ve had the sideways looks and rude comments that every LGBTI+ person experiences, but I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve never personally faced any significant discrimination due to my sexuality. The most significant discrimination that I face due to my sexuality is actually systemic discrimination – issues like marriage equality and my legal rights as a queer person, that kind of discrimination has a far greater impact on my life than any nasty comments do.
The most significant discrimination that I face due to my sexuality is actually systemic discrimination – issues like marriage equality and my legal rights as a queer person, that kind of discrimination has a far greater impact on my life than any nasty comments do.
What myths or perceptions do you think exist still in society around someone who identifies as being on the Autism Spectrum? Do you think that through your work and events such as the 2017 Autism West Symposium, beliefs can be changed?
I think there are still countless myths and misconceptions about autism and Autistic people. Largely, I think those beliefs depend on each individual person’s level of knowledge about autism. There are still plenty of people out there who know very little about autism, and those people might still have the misconception that all Autistic people are non-speaking with intellectual disability, or that we’re all like Rainman with amazing savant skills.
On the other hand, even people who do know quite a lot about autism often still have unhelpful beliefs, things like “we’re all a bit Autistic”, or “autism is just a difference, not a disability”, and although those are usually very well-intentioned beliefs, they can actually do some harm. The work I do is aimed more at that second type of person, it’s about taking people who are already quite knowledgeable about autism and really challenging their beliefs and encouraging them to examine and, hopefully, shift their thinking.
What message – if any – do you have for young girls and women who are autistic?
Oh, there are so many things I would like to say, but I’ll keep it to two.
First, be yourself and be confident in who you are.
Autistic girls and women tend to be really good at fitting in, flying under the radar, putting on social “masks” and imitating other people to fit in. That can be a really useful skill to have sometimes, but it’s so important to also hold on to your sense of who you truly are. Don’t let anyone try to change you, don’t feel like you have to change yourself, just be authentic and never lose the “real you”.
Don’t let anyone try to change you, don’t feel like you have to change yourself, just be authentic and never lose the “real you”.
Second, find your tribe!
Find the people who understand you and will accept you for exactly who you are. Spend time with other Autistic people. Learn from other Autistic people, share your experiences, cultivate those relationships, and find your place in our amazing Autistic community.
Finally, I read that you have a dislike for ironing and Dyson Airblade hand dryers. Can you please explain why?!
Hahaha. Well, my hatred for Dyson Airblades is purely a sensory thing. Their sound is horrifically loud and awful, and they’re unpredictable – you just never know when they’re suddenly going to start that terrible screaming. Sometimes I feel like they lurk in the corners of shopping malls, waiting to jump out and start roaring when I least expect it!
My dislike of ironing, on the other hand, has nothing to do with autism. It’s just a boring, mundane job. Nobody really likes ironing, right? I know a lot of the things I say are a bit controversial, but surely we can all agree on that one. Ironing sucks.
Jacquiline will be speaking at the 2017 Autism West Symposium, to be held in Fremantle, Western Australia, on the 3rd and 4th of November 2017. Book your tickets now!
About Jacquiline den Houting
Jaquiline den Houting is a registered psychologist and determined Autistic advocate with unique experience in her field; she spent 5 years working as a prison psychologist with Queensland Corrective Services, and now holds a position with the Queensland Police Service. Jacky is a current member of the executive committee of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Australia and New Zealand, an all-Autistic advocacy organisation committed to bringing about systemic change in order to improve the lives of Autistic people.