Croydon’s autism army is on the march


By - Tuesday 3rd May, 2016

Intelligent, confident and assertive: autistic people are ready to participate in their communities, says Paul MacDonald


When the subject of autism arises, why does everyone say, ‘Rain Man! Is that what you mean?’. Everyone seems to remember the film, but it’s a throwaway statement. I have found that awareness of a subject isn’t the same thing as interest in the subject.

That’s why I am not bothered with ‘autism awareness’: it’s ‘autism interest’ that gets me motivated. Thanks largely to the internet, we now have a growing army of people who are not just aware of autism, but who are also keenly interested in taking part in the life of a person with the condition. We are moving from community presence to full community participation: being players in the game of life.

You won’t change public attitudes to disabled people by going cap in hand saying, ‘please sir, can we come in?’

The public needs to know that people with autism have a full right to play an active role in their community. There needs to be mutual respect through confident autistic involvement in the local scene. When I was part of a New Addington community group for people with disabilities, we would go boldly into places where we had every right to be. You won’t change public attitudes to disabled people by going cap in hand saying, ‘Please sir, can we come in?’.

Thanks to the internet, we can connect with people all round the world in seconds with apps like Twitter and Linkedin. An army is rising: an autism army in whose ranks our own group, In A Spectrum, is playing a part.

In A Spectrum is a self-help group for adults with Asperger’s syndrome: the diverse, savant side of autism, in which you see awesome skills come to life. The group assists us in learning about the world around us and giving us the confidence to say: “Yes, I want a place in that world. Where do I fit in?”.

We are all intelligent people but we don’t always know what is expected of us

Through peer to peer experience we are finding that there is always someone who has been through an experience that another person is just coming up against. Our biggest difficulty in life is knowing the system: we are all intelligent people but we don’t always know what is expected of us.

Keeping a steady job is not easy when you have Asperger’s. Repetitive habits, or ‘stimming‘ (seeking repeated stimulating activities), are common and it is often difficult and stressful trying to deal with a sensory overload of sight, sound, smell and touch. All of them come at you like the blast from a stack of loudspeakers at a rave. Stressful? Neurotypical people don’t know the meaning of the word, and this can lead to stress and conflict in the workplace. Human Resources departments need to learn and to understand people in all of their breadth and depth.

We try to keep the meetings small in size: discussion and interaction are our greatest allies

The growth of In A Spectrum in Croydon was encouraged by my sister Ethney, who runs Asperger London Area Group. The activities of In A Spectrum are diverse: we are building an army which will not shy away from fighting its own battles, and a village of autistic people who proclaim: ‘Yes we can!’ Well, it worked for Obama!

In A Spectrum started in 2014 without any money to call its own: its first meeting was just me and my wife Linn, and it ended up costing us £60… well, you live and learn! Sometimes standing on your own is the only way to go. Nowadays, interest comes from all over the south of England and as far away as Birmingham. But we try to keep the meetings small in size: discussion and interaction are our greatest allies.

There is a need for In A Spectrum in every town in the country: it is vital that we have local services for local people. All it takes is a little support. Why should adults need to travel miles to find a friend or to attend a social event?

We want acceptance, not medication

Last year we organised forty-three social and educational activities, all free, thanks largely to Croydon Council and its Active Communities Fund. This year we had our first three-day training vacation at the Trafford Hall near Manchester. This year will also see our first one-day conference for adults with Asperger’s, entitled ‘Meaning, Mantras and More’. It will be held at the Croydon Park Hotel, and is again free to our members thanks to sponsorship from Trafford Hall.

Because of the sensory demands of autism, people will not always attend meetings. ‘Downtime’ is a requirement of the condition. Success is not measured by the number of people coming through the doors but by people opening the door to their hearts in acceptance. We share coping skills and encourage one another to fully understand and believe that we are neither isolated nor unworthy.

We’re not that interested in medical research. We need acceptance, not medication. We need to find each other and build a comprehensive community interested in people with autism. For more information, you can contact . You will meet with a warm welcome.

Paul McDonald

Paul McDonald

Paul is a man for the people. Married to Linn, with a daughter Rhiannon, the majority of his life has been living and working in Croydon. As well as enabling the In A Spectrum group, he has spent thirty years working with adults with learning disabilities, eight years with 2Eden, a local vegetarian society group offering free lunches and cooking lessons and has recently become an elder in the Hackbridge SDA church. Paul believes that: "Croydon is the best place to be, half way between the city and the sea".

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  • Charlotte Davies

    A brilliant group of activists who just want to be respected and treated decently. Definitely a group that ought to be wearing the Croydon vs The World tee-shirt!