An interview with Chris Bonnello – Blogger, autism advocate, author, public speaker, bridge builder and all round good guy.

As you can probably gather from my unfeasibly long blog title I was pretty excited when Chris Of Autistic Not weird agreed to a virtual interview with little old me. I still remember the day I first stumbled across his Facebook page and sat reading every post nodding in agreement or being knocked out by his perspective on so many autism related topics. Chris is one of the most authentic voices on social media, he is always true to who he is and I think his 80000 + followers are testament to that, people love a real person.

This authentic voice means that he explodes unhelpful autism stereotypes everyday – I challenge anyone to read just one of Chris’s blogs or a couple of his page posts and come out believing all autistic people are not empathetic, have communication difficulties, lack warmth, are rude or have difficulty relating to others as they are full of understanding, care, warmth, self awareness and are probably the most polite, inclusive and well explained posts on the planet.

Chris’s page is a safe haven for autistic people, parents of autistic children and indeed autistic parents, professionals and anyone else who might pop in. He really seems to understand the value in listening and seeing things from all sides and changing things from within. If you still don’t understand what I am on about have a quick read of this post he did about his visit to FaithMummy.

Chris Bonnello

It is no wonder that he recently won an Anne Kennedy Autism Hero Award (social media category).

Anyway I know from Chris’s posts that he finds compliments difficult and so I will stop now (although I could easily go on) and get on with the results of the interview. I sent Chris these six questions and here are his responses;

What age were you when you were diagnosed as autistic and how have your attitudes to it changed over time?

I was 25 when I was diagnosed, having known about my Asperger’s for a year and a half beforehand. I think it’s fair to say that my attitude has changed a lot since 2011: back then I saw autism as a synonym for “everything that’s wrong with me”! I also recognised that it was also where my maths and memory abilities came from, but I was in a place at the time where I could only focus on my weaknesses. A little while later, I came to realise that the diagnosis helped me to make peace with myself, and gave me the assurance that I wasn’t the “wrong” kind of person just because other people were different to me.

What were your experiences of school as a child?

Thankfully, my primary school years were very good. This was largely because I was clever, and most of my teachers saw me by my strengths. I was weird as hell, but that wasn’t focussed on. I can’t help but feel sorry for the autistic people my age who had exactly the same social struggles but none of the academic flair, because I imagine their schools weren’t as optimistic about them as they were about me.

Secondary school was loaded with bullying issues though. Thankfully I had a small but reliable group of friends who I could keep my head down with.

Do you have any tips for parents of autistic children who may be struggling to cope in school around how best to support them?

It would depend on whether I’m talking to the parents or the children themselves. If the tips are for the children, this article says most of the more important advice I’d offer.

If it’s for parents, I’d say keep in as close contact with the school as possible. Speaking as a former teacher, students tend to perform better when the home team and the school team are pulling in the same direction, and have the common understanding that both teams want what’s best for the student, even if they disagree on the methods. Loads of problems (or potential problems) can be sorted by talking to the teacher or headteacher.

If your school, however, is slow or reluctant to offer support or provision for an autistic child, then unfortunately my advice is to be annoying. As sad as it is, it’s the loudest and most irritating parents who get seen to first. (I don’t suggest being problematic or argumentative, of course. As far too much personal experience has taught me, it’s possible for a person to be seen as annoying whilst actually being totally polite!)

Was becoming a teacher something you always aspired to? Do you think there were any additional barriers or advantages about the process of achieving your qualification you attribute to being autistic?

I decided I wanted to be a teacher at the age of 14, on the basis that I was clever and good with kids. I was years away from discovering that actually, there’s a lot more to the job than that!

The biggest barrier to an autistic teacher would be Ofsted’s insistence on using specific methods and the profession’s general inflexibility. I could rant for ages about how there seems to be “correct” methods for teaching and Heaven help you if you don’t follow them helplessly, and then a few years later the “correct” methods will change entirely.

The biggest advantage for me personally, however, was my ability to form relationships with the young people. There’s not much I can thank a developmental delay for, but growing up I was always great with younger kids, varied with my peers and terrible with older kids (but fine with anyone over 40!). Being on a similar social level to younger people meant growing up with an extra level of respect for them.

What would you say to parents who may be worried about their autistic child’s future prospects?

I’d show them this;

Two important lessons here: first off, the future is not set. Just because adults are using scary words like “autism” and “development delay” doesn’t mean that your child is doomed or something. Anyone who thinks their five-year-old will never achieve anything at eighteen is grossly underestimating the important of the thirteen years in between.

And the second lesson: the moral of the story ISN’T “wow Chris, you’ve done so well”. I was a four-year-old boy! Back then it was the adults around me who decided what my future was going to look like, and I am infinitely glad they chose to define me by my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

Finally – My son and I love your wonderful book with quotes from autistic children called ‘What we love most about life.’ What do you love most about your life at this moment in time?

Oh wow, that’s a tough one! My answer in the book was “the occasional, sudden realisation that you’re a conscious living being who gets to experience the universe”. But right now, I’d say it’s being seen, heard and respected by people who allow me to play to my strengths and appreciate me for doing so. That and, more importantly, the love of God.

Huge thanks to Chris for taking time out from his very busy life to respond to my questions and if, like me, you still can’t get enough of Chris his wonderful new book ‘Underdogs’ out soon click on the link to reserve your copy here;

“Underdogs is a near-future dystopia novel, where teenagers who escaped an attack on their special school become the last hope of freeing the British people. A character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, it balances intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast. Soon to be published (in both paperback and ebook forms) by Unbound Publishing.”

Plus you still buy ‘Things I love about life’ here;

Or find him on Facebook here: Autistic Not Weird Facebook

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