Series 2, Ep1: Autistic Affordances - design thinking for self-emergence


[00:00:00] Hey sibling, you are listening to the Unmasking Unschooled podcast. This is for visionaries, creatives, and change makers who happen to be autistic, who are done with pathology paradigms, the masks and misinterpretations of the past, and the burnout cycles that come from trying to fit in with what doesn't work.

[00:00:31] You are here to create new aligned life structures, to innovate industries, to design liberatory solutions and create new culture by becoming yourself. My name is Louisa Shirey. I'm an artist, coach and founder of Solar Systems. This is all about you getting unstuck, reinventing and elevating your sense of Having the social context and frameworks to make a life that makes sense for how you make sense so you can finally experience who you're here to be in your fullness.

[00:01:02] Let's deep dive into it.

[00:01:08] Hey, sibling. It's so good to be back on the podcast. I took a six month break to. Do a lot of things behind the scenes, uh, both in solar systems and also in my own life. And I'm going to catch you up to that on another episode because I'm fired up about the thing I want to talk about today. So we're just going to get straight back into it.

[00:01:28] And even though I'm feeling rusty and this feels new and weird again, uh, I'm going to just be in the discomfort of And yeah, let's get into it. So, so Pluto's in Aquarius. Yay! New frameworks for power. This is less about structural and systemic as it was with Pluto and Capricorn. It's more to do with how we think, how we organize and make sense of reality.

[00:01:55] Aquarius is an air sign but it's represented by the water bearer, the container. If Pisces, the fish swimming in the water is all about experience, the water we swim in. Aquarius is about the container that shapes that reality. So, for you and I, this is good news. We are flying fish. We can see the water. We don't fit in with consensus reality.

[00:02:17] We see it for the construct it is. And, you're questioning systems thinking nature is about to Have its heyday. I think in the next 20 years We are emerging into a new era of yet And finally, we have all of what we need to start to make this all make sense So this is it sibling our time is now. All right enough astrology Let's get into what I want to talk about today which is one of the things that I want to do in this new series is uncover and reveal and unmask the value and the brilliance and the potency of What comes naturally to you, whether you see it that way or not yet, right?

[00:03:00] Because so much of what we have to unlearn is that the doing of things that don't come naturally that that has been the thing that was rewarded or recognized. And so we get accustomed to believing that we are only doing something of value. When we're pushing past our own limits or over adapting or suffering, right?

[00:03:20] So the other side of this is that disability or access, these are often framed in terms of the status quo and not disrupting that too much. And what you can or can't do based on the tools available and what adjustments need to be made so that you can access, um, enough. Enough agency to not rock the boat.

[00:03:48] Um, but also, you know, not too much, right? And so we want to start envisaging beyond the status quo and thinking of access in terms of a much wider, a much wider viewpoint. And as an active, co creative, like tool building, world building, future invoking type of action. And how much that any step towards that actually contains enormous, enormous value, right?

[00:04:24] The ways that things have been, the dying systems of the past, are the things that we learn to adapt to, but they're irrelevant. They're actually irrelevant. They're actually no longer the things that we need to see as being in control of what we get to do, who we get to be, what our reality is. And so, it's time to, yeah, move beyond that and into, okay, well, we think differently.

[00:04:49] Are in our bodies differently, whether we see that as a difficulty or a disability or a good thing or a bad thing, it doesn't really matter, right? Whether we are regarded as legitimately existing or not, it's the wrong question. The question is how do we exist? And so what I want to get into is. How do we exist better, easier, uh, with more agency, with more access and with more personal power to shape what our lives are.

[00:05:20] And yeah, so today this is where I want to introduce us back into the podcast with this new series and to consider one of the ways that we can reveal value, imagine value, recognize value. Especially chronically underappreciated and under resourced value, especially value that hasn't, so far in your experience, been seen, understood, rewarded, economically or socially.

[00:05:47] One of the ways that we can reveal that and shape it and name it and point to it is with language. And since this is a language based medium, this is what we're going to do. So I want to, today, introduce A term or a couple of terms that I think are useful in that direction. My goal for you is that you look at the solutions that you already know, that you've already dreamt up, that you've already created, that you already use, or that you already sense as possibilities, or that you've like designed in your head, or you've imagined, or you're like, yeah, that's going to be part of the future.

[00:06:25] Someone's going to create that and to see the value of them, right? To see that, okay. No, this is something that is a source of mutual sustenance. This is a source of solutions. This is a source of value for someone else. When we don't see the value of our own ideas or insights or adapted ways of doing things, we close off the recognition of the contribution that's contained in that, that could be there for other people.

[00:06:56] And we also don't embody the level of pride. And I confidence and belief and taking up space that people who get rewarded for everyday things do. So there are things about you that aren't ordinary, right? That are extra, that are beyond, that are outside, that are so called abnormal. And these are rare gems.

[00:07:18] These are rare, precious insights that come from your lived experiences, that come from your perspective, that come from your embodied reality. That come from the way that you sense and perceive and organize those perceptions that come from, you know, the thinking that you have that is demand avoidant and therefore defiant of the gravity of groupthink, right, that is unexpected, that escapes the cognitive traps and spelling nets of fear and dominance, and that is really about okay, your inability to fit in or to get on board with the status quo or to make things work the way that People expect all the way that things are set up.

[00:08:03] This is actually hiding or revealing an ability to envisage and imagine and show other options, right? To show what lies beyond, to take us somewhere new, to reinvent, to innovate, right? And so everywhere that you've felt stuck, everywhere that's been hard, Somewhere in that contains a type of cultural leadership that is available for you to step into whether or not you feel ready or supported in that or seen in that, but that's where we're going, right?

[00:08:42] And I think this is what we're really poised to realize when we're talking about neurodivergence, right? These labels are a cover story for what I think is a very potent power. Because, you know, what are these cover, these are cover stories for what is essentially a threat to the status quo, right? And so, it's convenient for the status quo for you to not believe in them, and not believe in yourself, and not believe in your ideas.

[00:09:11] And so if you've ever had an experience of Sharing an idea or presenting a solution or having an insight or just doing things in the way that suits you and people have been like, um, what's wrong with you or who do you think you are or who asked you? Right? Or there's been some perception that you are rocking the boat or you're doing things in the wrong way or you've just been made to feel isolated or rejected or excluded.

[00:09:41] What if that was just an indication of a type of power, a type of insight, a type of possibility, a potency that the people that were around you in that moment just weren't socialized and prepared to see, to recognize. A lot of the people I work with [00:10:00] fit a kind of twice exceptional profile, right? You, you have marked strengths and marked weaknesses.

[00:10:07] It's this spiky graph of, okay, we have stronger strengths or like very specific or niche areas of life in which you excel that might be more pronounced and might be more localized. And then you also have stronger weaknesses at the same time that are more pronounced than the general population that are unexpected, that don't fit the idea of what most people can and can't do.

[00:10:39] And you were likely only seen for one end of that spiky profile, right? You were either seen as someone who was really good at things, and so why can't you do this thing over here? Or you were seen in terms of your inabilities and that that meant you couldn't possibly have anything that was useful or meaningful to contribute or that your perspective is just not valid, right?

[00:11:02] So devaluing what you bring to the table may have been a hallmark of your past experience. And that means that embodying that is going to be scary. Embodying it, being it. Claiming it, being like, no, this is a good thing. This is who I am. This is something I'm prepared to be visible in. That is scary. But it's also what we're doing here, right?

[00:11:26] It's we're co regulating into that scary cultural leadership. We're creating, we're modeling belonging, we're modeling possibility. And so, if any of that has been an experience in your past, I want to encourage you to try on the idea of reframing that. And that you aren't alone in that. And that there's a whole bunch of us that can be together in that.

[00:11:51] And that maybe standing out is actually what you're here to do. Maybe reinventing is what you're here to do. Maybe doing it incorrectly or not being able to make it work the way that everyone does it. Maybe the things that you find especially hard, maybe the things that are, um, unique about you, that have been seen as wrong or that you carry shame around.

[00:12:17] Maybe those actually prime you to be part of the solution, right? To see where the problems are because you've experienced the sharper ends of inequity, right? Maybe it's giving you a kind of heat seeking instinct for what those solutions could be based on what doesn't work, right? So everything that you maybe thought was a deficit or a source of shame, maybe that's actually the very thing that is most needed.

[00:12:47] That would therefore be most valued and that maybe the experiences that you had around people that weren't able to see that were just the experiences that you had and Is not the whole world and is not your future and it's not everything about what your life needs to Feel like so I know that's a lot to take on and try on But this is why I want to do a whole series on yeah that reframe Because sometimes the biggest thing that's holding us back is not that we have executive function issues or that we have to manage our energy and then we struggle to keep up or that we process differently or slower or, or that we can't interact in the same way that other people do or we can't network in the same way, right?

[00:13:37] Maybe the biggest thing that's holding you back is that you've been adapting to bullshit or to the status quo or to other people's limited idea of who you could be. All right. And then what we end up doing is just accepting mediocre scraps and a kind of semi life and thinking that we need to earn our way right.

[00:14:00] That we need to, um, Do what's expected long enough and then eventually someone will give us permission to do things the way that we need to or someone will Open that door and say okay. You've done you've pleased us enough. You've checked the the box and Okay. Now you have now you can Now you can thrive.

[00:14:21] Right, and I think what we need to realise is the trap that that thinking is and instead to take charge, to take responsibility for no, let's do it now. Let's decide that what we have is of value. Autism is defined in clinical literature based on deficits, based on what you're not. And in my work as an artist that was informed by critical theory, that was informed by a lot of different thinkers and philosophers who helped me see the way that society shapes the way that we understand ourselves and who we are and what it means to be human and what it means to have a self.

[00:15:04] I came to think of autism as a type of absence, right, as an absent body, as a non, as a lack, as a deficit, in terms of how it's framed or described, right, not what it actually is. So deficits in empathy, deficits in social communication skills, deficits in executive function abilities, blah, blah, right? So.

[00:15:27] The autistic body, it's this space of projection, it's this space of not, it's being defined by what you are not. And so it's a space of absence. It's this, like, um, this, this forbidden land, this, like, arena that is, uh, is not okay to occupy, um, but it's also in that absence, in that space of societal or social projection of the things that are in that era undesirable or frail, um, Or mortal or unexplainable or not understood in dominant ways of thinking that absence is also a projection space in which we can imagine right that actually belongs to you you get to decide who you are you get to fill that void of absence with your imagination rather than the imagination that is fueled by societal fear, by rules of what is right, by conditions of belonging, and these ideas that, that you need to be brought back into this very limited idea of what it means to be human.

[00:16:39] So in that absent space, in that space of what I think is potency, it's like dark matter, it's like universe that hasn't been fully formed and emerged yet into tangible realities, is, it's a conjuring space, it's a space where we get to Come up with new ideas to try things to almost like imagine if you've ever watched a video of neural connections, reaching out and trying to make a new connection.

[00:17:08] It's like that, right? And I'm saying that because the word that I want to introduce today is this idea of affordances. If you're in the world of design, you know this word already. Um, but specifically I want to bring it into. Autistic affordances. So I'm going to explain the word, I'm going to share some thoughts about it, and I'm also going to introduce the opposite, which is disaffordances, and then I'll give a conclusion at the end, which is, okay, what does this mean for us?

[00:17:39] How can we use this word, this thinking, and apply it? So my own encounter with the word affordances came from, uh, the work of Katie G, who is a neuro divergent designer. And the paper from 2015, I came across it in 2016 and got to meet with Katie and talked to her about her work, and it's brilliant. I'm gonna link to it in the show notes.

[00:18:07] It's called A Designer's Approach. How can autistic adults with learning disabilities be involved in the design process? Amazing, right? Instead of being designed into a box, how can they be designers? And so, yeah, this project involved Katie working with autistic people and collaborating with them on designs that emerged from The ways that they naturally do think and, uh, be with the, the world around them, right?

[00:18:40] So led by autistic perception, autistic embodiment. So one example that came out of that, that I love is this fabric cover that you can put on. Chairs, you know, like the kind of chairs that you get in institutions or schools. And so you put these fabric covers on, and then that means that when you're sitting with someone else, you have this sensory container that blocks off the visual environment and provides a kind of containment.

[00:19:07] Another one that they came up with was a vacuum cleaner that produces bubbles when you use it. Anyway, there's so much in it and I love this project because of how much it speaks to. What is affordances? What are autistic affordances? Um, so let's get into it. So what is affordances? So this is a term that was It's coined by someone called James J Gibson, and it's really about how do like a living being and their environment interact in a way that Opens up possibilities, right?

[00:19:43] So, for example, when my hand reaches the handle of a door, it fits the palm of my hand, the shape of the object. I can grab it and I can interact with it in a way that opens the door. The other [00:20:00] thing that I love about KT's approach is this idea that if you perceive differently, then your environment affords you other options.

[00:20:12] So if your sense perception is, is different, right, then there are different things happening in the interaction between you and the environment or your surroundings or an object or like say a mug that you might put tea in. What is different about the way that we perceive that means that that mug has a different use.

[00:20:38] So if you think of the ways in which certain textures or certain images or certain shapes or certain sounds that you have a relationship with those that is maybe different from the general population, that is you being afforded a different something, a different type of agency or action or perception.

[00:21:02] Then the general population that arises in the interaction between the way that you are in your body, in your perceptions, and the way that that particular object or environment is. The environment can afford you something, an object can afford you something, right, an ability, an insight, an experience, uh, meaning, but also the ways that we think, the ways that we perceive, the body that we are in also affords us things, this distinction of, okay, It's not about who you are, but rather how you are and that how you are is shaped by that interaction between how you perceive and sense and be in your body and make sense of that and learn and interact with an environment or an object or something that isn't you and what arises in that interaction what is emergent in that what becomes more possible what's an experience that you're afforded Or an ability that you're afforded.

[00:22:04] So this comes from design thinking and the idea of, you know, how do we design tools, objects, furniture, et cetera, in a way that is maximizing those affordances, right? In that interaction, something becomes possible. And so when it comes to design, this is like, how do we design a tool that makes sense for the body that we have?

[00:22:30] I think it's super generative for thinking about different ways of doing things and also being in a body that has different properties, right? That means that you are afforded different experiences to someone else when you're interacting with the same. Surroundings or object or experience, right? So it's a way of, of naming that the self and the non self.

[00:22:56] that agency happens in the interaction between the two. More recently I came across another example of the word affordances that's used in an equally exciting way, which is in a book by Arseli Dokumasi, hopefully I've pronounced that correctly. The book is called Activist Affordances, How Disabled People Improvise More Habitable Worlds.

[00:23:19] And I'm going to quote from it because, um, It speaks to what I was talking about earlier. So this is what the book says. My term activist affordances differs from Gibson's affordances in that it describes possibilities of action. So like the things that are afforded, right, in that interaction.

[00:23:40] Possibilities of action that are almost too remote and therefore unlikely to be perceived and yet are perceived and actualized through great ingenuity and effort. to ensure survival. To perceive an affordance that exists in the actual and to perceive an affordance that is too distant a potential to even be perceived are not one and the same.

[00:24:05] When the two are treated as equals by being lumped under the rubric of affordances, then we lose track of the tremendous labor, struggle, and creativity that it takes to discover and actualize the latter. I propose the theory of activist affordances in order to name and recognize the tiny everyday artful battles of disabled people for more livable worlds that otherwise remain unaccounted for.

[00:24:32] I propose the concept of activist affordances as a way to understand how disabled people literally make up whatever affordances fail to readily materialize. in their environments or otherwise be immediately available for perception and at the same time must make up for that failure. So I love this emphasis on defining these barely perceived but necessary Improvised, creatively envisaged survival affordances as arising in a need and out of shrinkage or reduction in possibilities in the way that things are designed, right?

[00:25:16] The way that the things are one size fits all actually creates limitation or the ways that people are under resourced because they don't work well with the commonly resourced tools available. That out of that is a, is forged another way, and that there is labor, there is value, there is creativity in that.

[00:25:38] And claiming these sites of daily invention as a form of activism, and what I'm adding here is as a form of value. I think is, is really generative. And then final reference I want to share with you is from a book which builds upon the disability justice framework. And it's a book that I've spent a lot of time with that has informed the way that I've built solar systems.

[00:26:05] In a lot of ways and it's called design justice community led practices to build the worlds we need it's by Sasha Constanza Chok It's a really comprehensive overview of the relationship between design power and social justice And it was in this book that I came across the word Disaffordances, which is when design blocks access.

[00:26:26] So if you think about a lock on a door, you need a key to open the door So the lock disaffords access And the key affords access or let's say, um, you have one hand, but the towel dispenser requires two hands. That's, that's like, uh, a disaffordance, right? And this writer also references someone called D. E.

[00:26:49] Witkower, who uses a differently spelled version of disaffordances. So the The version I've mentioned so far is DIS dis Affordances, and this version by Wi Tower is with A-Y-D-Y-S, so dis affordances with a y. Any design that requires some users to mis identify themselves to access its functions. Like if you are non-binary and you're confronted with gender toilets, or you know, a passport form that you've gotta fill in.

[00:27:25] These types of things. So, I think about this a lot in terms of, you know, the way that social rituals or workplaces or learning places, schools, uh, buildings, like, so many aspects of, of our environment that is human built are containing disaffordances, both with an I and with a Y, in the sense that, you know, certain workplaces, you can only make them Uh, you know, usable if you're pretending that you aren't having the sensory experiences that you're having, all right, or you're having to pretend and be a version of yourself that is, you know, embodying, uh, the codes of whiteness or the, or a gendered environment in which you don't get to fully express who you are.

[00:28:19] So the ways in which we, you know, change. Ourselves. We try to modulate ourselves, we edit ourselves in order to fit in with certain social environments, is also a form of disor. So I wanted to introduce these terms so that we can start to talk about, well, what does this afford me or disor me? And to get us into the specifics and the nuances of this isn't really about who you are so much as.

[00:28:51] Who you think you are based on the experiences you have of how much you get to be who you are, how much you are enabled, how much you are afforded, and what is possible or not, and then also what do my natural tendencies and traits afford me that is rare or different or unique, and whether it's like A gift that is understood in that way or not, how might it be valuable?

[00:29:26] How am I, my paying attention to it? How am I, the ways that I adapt, the ways that I come up with solutions, how am I, also the traits that come naturally and easy to you, even if they are under recognized, how might that be a source of solutions also for someone else? And so if there's something that you're dreaming up and it hasn't been done before or there's a life structure that you want to create but it doesn't have a name or it doesn't have You know, no one's doing it that way [00:30:00] or it doesn't represent the life experiences that you've had.

[00:30:04] And also, you know, if there's something that you want to do or create and you just don't see anyone doing it the way that you might need to do it or the way that you imagine doing it, or you don't see anyone like you doing it, then Maybe that means that there is something about that that is a rare gem that is of deep necessity and transformative value.

[00:30:28] Maybe that means that you get to trailblaze it. Maybe you are afforded perspectives and insights. that are life giving to humanity and just haven't been seen yet. And then finally I'm going to twist this on its head and say, What if masking was, uh, an adaptation that your body made for survival that is an affordance that it has?

[00:30:55] What if masking is an appropriate and beneficial response for now? What if the masks that you've created or the ways that you've adapted has been the best option in a space of disaffordance. And how can we also recognize that value, that labor, and all of the effort that went into that, all of the recovery time, all of the things that you had to do to get here now.

[00:31:24] Alright sibling, autistic affordances, go play with it, go look it up, uh, tell me what you think, or if you've already been thinking about this, if you're already designing things, if you're already coming up with stuff, I want to know about it. Write to me, tell me, I'd love to hear what you're up to, and I will talk to you again soon.





is for #autistic-status visionaries, creatives and change-makers, who are seeking a more empowering way to see, know and be yourself.