Bastien Confais is delighted to have successfully delivered a speech at the AsIAm National Conference yesterday. He was asked to talk about the importance of a strengths-based approach to autism, how important it is for professionals to reach us through our interests
Here is the transcript of his speech:
It is a great honour and an enormous pleasure to be here today. I really admire the wonderful work AsIAm is doing for the inclusion of autistic people. I cannot thank them enough for inviting me to their conference but also for their support all along the year.
I am still not comfortable with talking in public, and especially accessing my thoughts while speaking. This is the reason why I can only read a text prepared in advance. I am very sorry for this because it makes the message more difficult to be understood. I also apologise for my poor English accent.
My name is Bastien, I come from Nantes, in the west of France. I had the opportunity to complete my whole education in mainstream schools thanks to my mother and to very supportive teachers who did their best to support me and to enable me to participate. I obtained a master’s degree in Computer Science in 2015, defended my Ph.D. in July 2018 and I am currently working as a research engineer at the University of Nantes.
Computer Science has always been an important part of my life. I discovered how to use a computer when I was a small child and for many years I spent my whole free time (all the weekends and all the holidays) in front of a computer, trying to understand how it works. All my school years were only composed of school and computer. I had absolutely no interest or a very limited interest in anything else. I had almost no activity outside school, and seeing friends was not something I could imagine and to be honest, the concept of friendship was not something familiar to me.
I recently realised that if I have succeeded in school, if I have developed the skills I have today and, if I have the degree and the job I have today, it is because I had the opportunity in my life to meet many great people who had the capacity to think outside the box, to find imaginative ways to reach me through my interests to enable me to learn new things and to participate rather than expecting me to do the exact same things as everybody.
Interests make the first contact easier
I think that using and relying on someone’s interests makes the first contact easier. Indeed, when a new person approaches you and talks about a topic you like and you know, it is not only reassuring but it also brings a bit of predictability which is essential (for autistic people) to reduce the stress of the unknow. You do not know the person, you do not know what they want, how they communicate but you know the topic they are talking about and you can rely on it.
In high school and before, I was a very shy person and was not able to talk to most teachers and students. I was too anxious to raise a hand, to speak, or to go in front of the class to write something on the whiteboard. But when teachers asked me something about my interest or when students came to tell me something about it, it was a lot easier to answer them and to talk with them.
This was even clearer when I went to university where, from my first practical class, I was able to talk without any difficulty to all the teachers and students individually in the group because we all worked on a topic I was passionate about. I think that studying what I like made the transition to high education far easier than it was expected by my teachers and parents. So, in that sense, I do believe high education can be an excellent opportunity for all autistic people to work on what they like, to reach for other people with the same interests and to make friends.
Interests help you to feel valued and considered for your skills
Beyond making a first contact easier, I think that reaching for someone through their interests and strengths enables this person to show their knowledge, their skills and their competencies and, as a consequence, to feel valued.
When I was in school, teachers always did their best to help me to participate in the class. They could ask a question and read my answer out loud from my notebook. In sports, I could count the points and collect the scores rather than running and playing like everybody else.
In addition to make me participate in the class, it also showed to the students, what I was capable of. As a consequence, it created an atmosphere where some students could help me during the inter classes, for instance they would take me to the school cafeteria, and in exchange, I could help them to understand the lessons or answer their personal questions in the fields I was good at. I also cannot count the number of people who asked me what could be wrong with their computer.
I also think this atmosphere prevented a lot of bullying because when you are valued by your peers and someone tries to bully you, there is always someone to stop them and support you.
Being considered for your knowledge, your skills and your competencies rather than being seen as someone with a lot of problems also helps you to feel valued and gives you a sense of belonging. In other words, people see your abilities before they see your disability.
We should also not forget that sharing some interests can also be seen as an accommodation (for example: communicating by computer). All the teachers I had, allowed me to do my homework on my computer. It was a great way to incite me to do my homework by mixing computer and school materials but it was also a great help because writing with a keyboard was easier for me than writing with a pen, especially in the evening after having spent many hours in class.
Interests can be used by everybody
Contrary to a common belief, finding an interest or a strength you can rely on to engage someone is not something hard or difficult. It is not because someone is good at maths that only a maths teacher can succeed in using this interest.
I still remember a teacher in philosophy which is a subject I was not very interested in. I was not very /active in/motivated by her course but one day, the topic was logic and she compared the logic of great philosophers like Socrates to the logic we use in electronics and computer science. She asked me for some help to write a logic table on the whiteboard during the class.
Another example I can use is a French teacher who asked everybody to read books and to create a multiple-choice questionnaire about the stories so that another class could answer the questions. Reading books was not something I was very good at because I do not understand the stories but I could create a website to put all the questionnaires the other students created.
So, there is always an opportunity to engage someone and to highlight their interests, so that they could be involved and valued.
Reassuring other people
Reaching for someone through their interests can be very reassuring. It can not only reassure the autistic person but also the other people. During my education, I met several people wondering if I was able to study in their class or if I was able to do an internship in their company. They were often afraid of not knowing how to interact with me or how to support me.
I remember a new communication teacher at the university who the first day, asked to talk to my mother before the class because she was very afraid of having me and she was not sure she was able to teach me.
But, when the class started, I was immediately taken in with her course and was even able to ask her some questions at the end. The next classes, she did everything to help me to participate. I think that she became convinced she could teach me because she was very happy to have me again the next year.
Relying on interests is not an extra thing you can do
The last point that I think it is important to consider is that we sometimes have the impression that relying on a person’s strengths and interests is just an extra thing we can do. But in fact, this reliance should be placed at the same level as every accommodation made.
When I was a student at the university, I was lucky that a teacher found a company ready to accept me for an internship. Nevertheless, when we visited the company, the person who showed us around only talked about what difficulties I could have and whatever adjustments I needed. Unfortunately, the woman did not talk a lot about the topic of the internship, the work she expected me to do and the technical challenges of the work she proposed. Forgetting these crucial pieces of information really gave me the impression she proposed the internship because I was autistic instead of because of my skills. And I think a job or an internship that you get only because of your disability is not a job you will like and where you will be valued! I eventually preferred to do my internship in another company where the director presented me what the work would be rather than focusing on my disability.
I think it is important for schools, for companies and for professionals in general to bear in mind what can engage autistic people and to find the right balance between being attractive (engaging) and proposing accpmodations. Indeed, as I illustrated with many examples before, working on a topic you love can sometimes be a very important accommodation which should not be neglected!
To conclude on these few points, I truly believe that relying on what people are interested in is something too often neglected but it is a key piece to make inclusion a lot easier. Not taking into account what a person is interested in is like trying to teach maths to someone who does not like them and does not understand what their purpose is. In the end, both student and teacher lose interest and give up.
Most autistic people have something they are interested in and it is an excellent opportunity for everybody, for teachers and professionals to use it in order to support the person, to help them to learn new things but it is also an extraordinary opportunity for autistic people themselves to get a sense of belonging, to enable them to participate, to feel valued and recognised by their peers and to turn their autism into a force.
PS: Here is a video recorded few weeks ago while the preparation of the speech.