Autism and Neurodiversity

Jeremy reflects on a Calling the Shots session with autistic adults for the University of Exeter’s Exploring Diagnosis Project

Working with plasticine is extremely comforting. Warming it up and rolling around in your fingers is probably something I could do for a good few hours. Slowly something emerges from the blob…is that? yes I think it is! It’s a horse/badger/dog! Here, we all sit around a big table, Sophie, Lizzie and me, and some of the guys who attend the National Autistic Society’s Lynx Centre in Weston-super-Mare

So, we all sit around the table and roll the plasticine around and start to shape and squeeze. There is some shouting, some disconcerting cries of “Cat-Bear!”, there’s laughter but mostly there’s silence, a good silence. We are, after all, creating stuff, slowly, words aren’t necessary in such a process.



Over to one side Dom has set up a green screen with a live feed to a monitor so everyone can see the electronically created backgrounds. Dom changes them regularly. The backgrounds have been previously prepared based on the participant’s interest. Every now and then someone gets up spontaneously and stands in front of the screen to watch themselves interacting with the background. One of the guys, Brian, is very interested, and I mean VERY interested, in trains and particularly St Pancras Station. He stands under the great curved roof on one of the platforms as if waiting for a train. He is lost in thought. There is a cavalcade of CITV characters to do a selfie with. There’s the inside of the TARDIS and even a street in a town on the edge of some distant Star Wars galaxy.

The day continues at this gentle pace. Some of the participants want to animate the models they have made and Lizzie moves to another table where there are a few iPads set up. Some of the animations are meticulous. Janine creates a complex narrative based on a series of terrible farm accidents. Ian, one of the most silent of the group, loves his numbers and animates a plasticine countdown from 120.

As the day winds to a close we had outside with Jess, to experiment popping a water balloon in slow motion like the Slo-Mo Guys while filming with a high speed camera. Jess is much more verbal and independent than some of the other guys visiting the centre and is, in fact doing a media course at Bridgwater College. But he hadn’t tried this yet. As it turned out he was extremely disappointed with the results. Hopefully we can return with a much faster camera next time!

This environment, with it’s relaxed sense of flexible learning where you have time and resources to respond to a individual’s learning style, takes me right back to the early days of Calling the Shots. Since 1998 I have spent many hours trying to allow the space for voices to emerge, thoughts and opinions to surface and be expressed so they can get out there into the world or even just the room. There have been many different environments, from caravans, to council estates, to schools, to the hillsides of Wales and in my own back garden. However, I know it’s in places like the Lynx, these least pedagogic, most gentle, most flexible and quietest sessions, that I feel the approach working, as the plasticine works through my fingers and slowly warms, ready for shaping.