In this article, Studio 3 reviews Pete Wharmby’s 2022 publication, 'Untypical: How the World Isn’t Built for Autistic People and What We Should All Do About It.’
‘Untypical’ by Pete Wharmby is a broad exploration of the multitude of ways in which the world has not been built with autistic people’s needs at the fore, and how confusing and strange this neurotypical bubble can be to navigate for neurodivergent people in general. Pete Wharmby is a former English teacher who received an autism diagnosis in his thirties, and who has since emersed himself in the world of autism advocacy. In this book, he shares some of his person experiences of navigating what Peter Vermeulen calls the ‘chaos’ of neurotypical society, including the need to mask, the struggles of education and employment where no adjustments are made for neurodivergence, ADHD and other intersectional neurodivergent identities, as well as an overwhelming lack of knowledge and understanding around autistic experience in many sectors. Pete’s witty and engaging narrative throughout is both insightful and passionate as he implores non-autistic readers to attempt to understand the experiences of autistic people in social, educational and employment environments, and how we as a society can make the world a less harmful place for neurodivergent communities.
Pete discusses his life pre-diagnosis, and voices a feeling of Otherness that is reflected in many autistic experiences. He admits from the outset, ‘I’m a little… cross.’ Why is the world so hostile and harsh for autistic people? Why are neurotypical people the ‘normal’ ones when everything they do is nonsensical? From unspoken social rules to the horror of phone calls, there are a plethora of hoops for neurodivergent people to jump through before they can be accepted into the fold, which at times felt like an impossible task for Pete:
‘I was like a version of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, brought up out of my element, learning how to exist in one world with its terrible dangers while the world I truly belonged to was elsewhere, unknown to me. Unlike him, though, I had no mentor or guide in this journey, no Baloo or Bagheera to help me understand the laws of the jungle.’
Pete’s jungle analogy here is not a frivolous one – the world really is a dangerous place for autistic people. The pressure to fit in is so great that it can feel like life or death; pressure not, as Pete says, ‘to make us fit in at a party, but to make us fit in with humanity.’ When passing as non-autistic has consequences as severe as not being accepted for a job or being persecuted by figures of authority, it becomes a huge burden on autistic people to behave neurotypically. This is particularly relevant for autistic people with other minority identities, such as the Black autistic community, historically misunderstood and mistreated by organisations such as the police force, particularly in America. Autistic people in extreme distress have often been mistaken for violent offenders (such as Linden Cameron), making this not merely an issue of autistic people’s comfort, but their welfare:
‘It’s vital for people in authority to understand the limitations of autistic masking, and to be able to recognise the signs of autistic meltdown and autistic behaviour generally.’
Misunderstanding meltdowns, dysregulation and sensory sensitivity in autistic populations can have dangerous consequences, and it is vital that autistic people’s needs are recognised by society at large. This requires more understanding around what autism is and how it can impact people, particularly when they may be distressed. Trying to impose neurotypical rules in these moments will only serve to escalate the situation and cause further distress. As David Pitonyak says, ‘When a person is drowning, that is not the time to teach them how to swim.’
Pete goes on to discuss the multitude of ways in which autistic people must work so much harder than neurotypicals in order to simply get through the day, leading to huge amounts of stress which, without support, can become unmanageable. This is due to a multitude of factors, including constant pressure to mask, social difficulties, and increased sensory sensitivity:
‘The understanding that’s lacking is that autistic people are already, just by being alive in this world, close to their natural limit of stress – their ceiling of tolerance.’
This is compounded by the lack of equal access to healthcare, where the needs of autistic people are not being met or understood by healthcare professionals. Even making an appointment with a doctor is difficult, requiring the social and executive function skills to call and make an appointment, travel there, and arrive on time. Pete calls for mandatory training in learning disabilities and autism for healthcare professionals, such as the recently enacted Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism introduced in the UK.
Pete is one of the many late-diagnosed people who have received no post-diagnosis support in the UK, ‘having been sent on my way with a handful of mediocre pamphlets and a ‘good luck’ from the psychiatrist.’ Pete states that, had it not been for the support he received from the online autistic community, his own outcome may have been far worse. At the heart of this is a lack of understanding and awareness of autism itself, and how best to support autistic people. Without understanding, inefficient or non-existent accommodations are the only support available:
‘The problem here stems from a lack of understanding of what autism is: after all, how can you offer to help someone whose difficulties you don’t comprehend?’
In this book, Pete attempts to demystify some of the misperceptions around autism, and provides a comprehensive insight into issues such as executive dysfunction and the impact this can have on education, employment, finances and housing; autistic inertia; monotropism; stimming and its effectiveness as a coping strategy; how special interests can save lives (a sentiment echoed by the wonderful autism campaigner Dr Carly Jones); pathological demand avoidance (PDA); ADHD; depression; relationship and communication difficulties; trauma; sensory sensitivities; as well as how autism intersects with other marginalised identities (being Black, Queer, Trans and more).
This book is a call to action for neurotypical people who want – and need, for the sake of their fellow humans – to understand autism better, and use that knowledge to do better in their personal interactions with the autistic people in their lives. It’s also about us as a society, as communities, coming together to make the world a more accessible and safe place for everyone. The voices of autistic people have been drowned out throughout history in many sectors, and there have been many ‘ham fisted attempts to ‘raise awareness’ by charities run by non-autistic people using language and images despised by the autistic community.’ Now is the time to listen to the authentic experiences of autistic people and elevate these into public consciousness in order to inform individuals, organisations, research and practice in our society. As Pete points out, ‘This is so frequently planted as a problem that lies squarely at the feet of the autistic person.’
‘It’s too easy to think, in a defeatist, miserable way, that we’re the ones who keep messing up and that we’re the ones, therefore, who need to change.’
This cannot continue to be the case. The responsibility to make the world a better place for autistic people lies with all of us, and it starts with you individually taking accountability, and ensuring that outdated and damaging myths about autism are not perpetuated. Listen to the stories of people like Pete who are fighting to be heard. After all, as Pete says:
‘We autistics can shout about it until the proverbial cows come home, some of us can even write whole books about it, but nothing will change until the neurotypicals do.’
'Untypical' by Pete Wharmby is available to purchase on Amazon.
Studio 3 Information and Social Media Co-ordinator