How an autism diagnosis changed Clem Bastow’s world for the better
Journalist by profession, she is “a hen in freedom” in terms of work. Writing music reviews was her starting point, then entertainment journalism, including a stint in Los Angeles, then several years as a columnist for Fairfax, writing feminist commentaries. In Late flowering, she sees the irony of offering dating advice when she didn’t enjoy the process herself, was often ambivalent about men, and later became queer.
The book makes a political statement, gaining ground according to the #OwnVoices movement. “People with autism are often the objects; we don’t have the opportunity to tell our own story very often. It was a way of saying “look at all this data that exists about us – and not by or for us”.
Treatment for autism has revolved around the extinction – that’s the medical term – of autistic behaviors. An early diagnosis may have meant that Bastow was subjected to this process, as well as other questionable practices. “What do you think about two-year-olds being confronted with terrifying things just to see if they react differently to other kids?” “
It is estimated that one in 70 Australians is on the spectrum, or around 353,880 people, according to Autism Spectrum Australia, although many more remain undiagnosed. It is four times more often diagnosed in boys than in girls. “For me, it is sometimes a surprise for people because in this environment [on Zoom] or when I teach or play because I’m comfortable in it, that’s fine, but when I’m on the phone with Centrelink or in stores or in a lot of other situations… ”
The title was inspired by Bastow’s diagnosis at the age of 36. Dive deep into the subject. “It’s one of the things about me that I think is representative of engaging with the world with autism, finding out something about something and then having to know absolutely everything about it,” she says.
As a child, she was obsessed with dinosaurs, sparkly things, movies, music, and costumes – some of which continue into adulthood; his latest hobby is BMX, a perfect lockdown chase.
Despite difficulties at school, Bastow was considered gifted in the subjects that interested her. Mathematics was not one of them; a teacher memorably contacted her parents to ask them if there had been a death in the family that had made her so bad and disengaged. She dropped out of university several times, finding it too difficult to navigate, so much so that at the end of her master’s degree in screenwriting in 2017, “I felt like I had used the cheat card” .
Now a scriptwriting teacher at the University of Melbourne, she is preparing a doctorate in action cinema and autism at RMIT; she is co-host of Overabundance on Triple R.
Part of the diagnosis that came so late – “the nice version” – is that at home she was loved and accepted for who she was. “At home we were all pretty eccentric and a lot of our friends were too, so in the context of this world, I didn’t seem that different. It was “it’s just Clem’s thing”.
Being diagnosed was a huge time, “really a planetary alignment thing”. “There is hardly any adult support in Australia, no specialist diagnosing and it’s really expensive,” she says. “If you’re not Rain Man – a straight, white 30-year-old male – this process gets harder and harder. “
The 1988 film starring Dustin Hoffman as the Silly Scientist recurs several times in the conversation. A resounding success, it has had a lasting impact on the way society perceives people with autism. “Much of this film is presented as this problem to be solved. And in the end, well, here’s a person who could never exist in the real world and he goes back to his institution and Tom Cruise can go and enjoy his romance.
More recently, locally, there has been Love on the spectrum, of which the second series was more representative than the first. Bastow loved the people on the show but has a problem with the framing, which suggests that “of course these people can’t have dates.” In Josh Thomas’ Everything will be alright, Kayla Cromer, actress with autism, plays an autistic character; Thomas revealed he was autistic earlier this year. Like other diverse voices, there is pressure for #ActuallyAutistic people to determine how they are represented.
Bastow says she’s penned her way to the diagnosis; while working on a script for a film, she began to see herself reflected in a lot of literature. “I was writing this character and as I was reading I started to see oh, that sounds very familiar to me.”
To people who fear being assessed – or having their children assessed – who fear being labeled, Bastow says that what you end up being labeled, whether in the playground or in the workplace, is much worse. She hit a tipping point: “Things in my life were going to become untenable if they weren’t already.
“You spend so much energy over a lifetime suppressing these behaviors, it can make or break. I had these experiences that I just couldn’t understand, I had no explanation for them. Initially great. positive, she then went through “almost stages of grieving but backwards.” “Then there’s this unpacking process, if only I had understood that earlier, what life would have been like.”
Bastow argues that as a society we need to understand the perspective of the person with autism, accept the differences rather than trying to bend them into a particular mold. As an example, she challenges the classic account of a child with autism never saying I love you. “They say it everyday, they just don’t say it in words. It may be that a child wants to share something special with you or do a dance or is really having fun, so try to research the ways in which children with autism are already communicating with you rather than giving a big deal. importance to particular types. of communication and types of existing in the world.
There is great beauty in “becoming” she says and asking who my real autistic self is. After the diagnosis, she began to peel off the layers of the facade that had accumulated over decades and admits it was bittersweet. “People who experienced this earlier were able to develop a sense of pride in [it]. I look at some of my autistic friends and … it’s remarkable the level of pride and acceptance in themselves because they’ve grown up knowing they’re not broken or flawed. They just know they’re different.
Late flowering (Hardie Grant) is out now.
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