How I checked in to my local branch of Backslappers’ Anonymous

INT. Backslappers Anonymous, Table 64 at The Ash Tree, Ashton-under-Lyne

My name is Stuart Thomas Henderson Howard John Alexander Pfeffel Anthony Charles Lynton Vallantine, and I am a success. I have written scripts for a successful TV series, produced a long-running multi-channel interactive half hour long variety spectacular, and circumnavigated Greater Manchester by bus on numerous occasions. I can remember every single track on Supertramp’s studio albums and live albums and met my partner beside a gas holder outside the Etihad Stadium…

In Dear Old Blighty, saying to yourself “yes, I am brilliant” doesn’t seem to be the British way. As the stiff upper lip is still a thing, praise can be seen as being ‘big headed’. If we praise anything to high heaven, we could be seen as having narcissistic personality disorder. If we don’t blow our own trumpet now and again, few people might have heard of our talents.

There may be more than one reason for this. Firstly, it isn’t in our personality: we may be too modest and our version of ‘best’ may be ‘legendary’ to other people, with Mr/Mrs/Dr Modest thinking “yeah, I’m not bad”. Secondly, opportunities: getting the breaks, making use of them. Similarly, background or income may stymie this, as does fearing the unknown.

I would probably say I’m in the Mr Modest bracket. Perhaps W.B. Yeats’ quote might sum this up:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In government as well as stage and screen, it is so true. Take for example the popularity of Donald Trump and his Poundland imposter from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Their false charm is the Passionate Intensity of W.B. Yeats’ quote; the use of short sentences to pander to voters’ baser instincts such as “build a wall, and make Mexico pay for it” and “Get Brexit Done”.

The late great Donna Williams, the author of several autism books who I have had the pleasure of working with, would have had the former President of the United States and the former UK Prime Minister down as having narcissistic personality disorder. She would have seen similar parallels with the John Howard and Tony Abbott era of Australian politics.

30 years on from Nobody Nowhere’s initial print run, her perspective has changed lives for the better. The autobiographical approach that was continued in Somebody Somewhere, Like Colour to the Blind and Everyday Heaven was life changing thanks to her perspective. Before Nobody Nowhere, autobiographies by people with autism were unheard of. The previous precedent set by Dr. Temple Grandin’s Emergence: Labeled Autistic (1986) was co-edited by Margaret Scariano.

Donna’s first book was typewritten at home outside of work hours. She was temping at a London NHS hospital. One day, she handed the manuscript to one of her colleagues. Donna wanted to burn it, but her colleagues thought otherwise and history was made.

The timing of which couldn’t have been better. Contemporary practice in mental health and disability care starting shifting towards the social model; the 1983 Mental Health Act also saw the closure of long stay hospitals like High Royds and Calderstones. Despite these developments, the long stay hospitals of old seem to be survived by today’s Assessment and Training Units.

Though Donna Williams’ work was a seminal point in the history of the disability movement, she was always modest about her achievements. Being a fellow traveller on the autism spectrum, she was overwhelmed by the praise and thought modestly about her work. As stated on the National Autistic Society’s website about Distressed Behaviour:

“Some autistic people do not enjoy social attention. In these circumstances, verbal praise can cause distress and actually stop the person engaging in the desired behaviour in the future.”

As seen in the above quote, I have been praised for my creative work and I had had thought “yeah, brilliant, thanks”. If somebody else has said “I like your paintings, why don’t you paint like this any more?”, it might have been the “it is just a painting”, the “it is only a rough scribble” or “it is the iconic Greater Manchester Transport M-blem” before boring my adoring public about who designed the thing and his other logo designs*.

Perhaps my inability to process praise could be seen as an extreme example of the English Stiff Upper Lip. The Stiff Upper Lip is purely for show and a learned behaviour. For a person with autism, receiving praise and accepting it has to be learned. The way we accept praise varies from person to person: we might several cries of “well done” and “you are a legend” too cloying and want to clam up.

I like being praised at the end of a task, at the end of a day at work, at the end of a show rather than be gushed to high heaven whilst hard at work on Making Genius Happen. The last thing I ever say to myself is “I am good” or “I know I am good”, probably the maxim of pride coming before a fall or that fear of complacency. Constructive criticism with positive language suits me best.

Underestimating the impact I have made in my work is something I am guilty of doing. My previous places of employment might have been a factor; especially in places where there has been less scope for creativity.

I must be doing something right…

The 24th March 2022 was a bog standard Thursday by any means. I was involved at an Engagement Session at Stanley Grange, a consultation on how The Mighty FD are doing with helping their supported persons to live their best lives possible. With Costco’s finest sponge cakes, a choice of Meat and Potato Pie or Cheese and Onion Pie, and a disco.

The most amazing testimonial I got came from a woman called Emily (E has been mentioned in a previous EM60 post on Fun Time Friday). She said at the end of the session:

“I really admire what you do… You are amazing” – E. L.

More than anything this meant so much to me because I was told firsthand from one of the people supported by FD. There was I thinking to myself, “Flip, I really am doing something right…” with all the social media posts and in dressing up as an ostrich. The impact I had on Emily was almost the same impact Donna Williams had on me 17 years ago.

The encouragement it gave me was unbelievable. When E shouted my ‘stage name’ whilst on stage at Blackburn Empire Theatre (after seeing her through the dressing room monitor), I thought ‘yikes’. The buzzing would take hours to come down from; with Blackburn Empire Theatre, at least two days. (After an awful journey into work, followed by Boeing 747 noise levels at FD HQ, The Worst Day of May 2022 became The Greatest Day of May 2022).

After the 24th May 2022 performance, everything seemed to have crept upwards. Work was (and still is at this time of writing) going well. The flip side of this praise has been a slightly more overwhelmed Stugle – somewhat exacerbated by the odd personnel change as well as the office lighting.

The Wonder of Stu (and Kevin too)

With the office busier and more overloading for myself, there has been a few more modifications in my role. The best bit being the office/out-on-the-road with Kevin balance. What I liked about the COVID lockdowns was working from home and going to the office on some days in the week. On the other hand, I missed getting things done quickly in the office and seeing fellow colleagues.

With the office being busier, I value the days when I am out with my fellow colleague Kevin – doing the Stronger Together Community Choir and Fun Time Friday shows on the road. I love going on the occasional outing with Future Directions’ Friends For Life Group. Apart from time away from the office (and getting good source material for FD’s social media channels) the midweek trips take me back to being at Ewing School. The most recent successful trip being on to Fireground, the excellent museum of firefighting in Greater Manchester at the former fire station in Rochdale.

Last month, Kevin and I did two well received lectures on autism spectrum conditions. In a previous post I said how great it was to be speaking again, and how amazing that week was. After seeing another autism awareness talk, Josie Hall (one of my fellow colleagues at FD HQ, Marle House) said she learned more from the FD lecture with myself and Kevin than the other one.

Kevin and I found out about this glowing report from another colleague of mine, Office Manager Nicky Walsh. It put us on a great footing for the latest edition of Fun Time Friday.

In other words, Making Genius Happen.

A few hours later, The Wonder of Stu was noticed by another colleague: this time at the venue where Kevin and I did Fun Time Friday. She said she has a lot of love for the social media posts I put out on FD’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channel.

Making Genius Happen, somebody else worshiping the ground I walk upon. Needless to say, I couldn’t take it in at the time I received the praise. It might be something to do with my humble temperament as well as trying to process the joy I am bringing.

A year ago, there was no way I could take any praise in so well. The turning point was probably E in late March, then going to the other houses on Kevin’s music sessions and being praised again by supported persons and staff teams. It’s also in seeing the results – like the FD’s Got Talent Final being moved to the Celebration Day – and the smiles on the faces when Kevin and I arrive with the musical instruments.

As Stardust said in 1998, “Music Sounds Better With Stu**”.

S.V., 13th November 2022.

* Ken Hollick. His other works include the Derbyshire County Council logo (1975) which is still in use today.

** No they didn’t say that: it is ‘you’ instead of ‘Stu’, you great show off!

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