This international women’s day, we’re highlighting inspirational autistic women. Meet Dr Kate Fox, an autistic performance poet from Yorkshire. Kate is also an academic researching class and gender in stand up performance. In this interview, Kate tells us more about her experiences as an autistic women and how she uses comedy as a tool to change preconceptions…

What made you seek an autism diagnosis?

I’d thought of doing it for years, as I knew I probably was autistic. It was a combination of things; writing a PhD and feeling I was being inaccurate if I didn’t name my autism, meeting other autistic performers and artists who made me recognise there was a sort of political duty to speak up as autistic people are so marginalised and also thinking that if I ever needed medical treatment as I get older, a diagnosis would be useful.

How would you describe your autism?

I am my autism and it is me. It simply describes the way I’ve developed and that I process the world. I’m a pattern-spotter. I see patterns in words, in people’s actions and tactics, in the way language shapes our world. I can hyper-focus if I’m interested in something, but am bad at feigning interest in things I’m not. I thrive in quieter spaces, with enough stimulation from interesting people and projects to keep me in a flow-state, buzzily, busily tuning in to the world’s own ebb and flow. My autism is very apparent to other autistic people, not so much people who aren’t autistic. I’m a highly verbal autistic person who is fascinated by people. I don’t use “functioning” or “severity” labels – I don’t think they’re accurate. Depending on the situation I may “function” better or worse.

Do you think that it’s true that there is an under-diagnosis of autistic women?

I think that sort of question's best not asked as if it’s a matter of personal opinion. It’s recognised by many psychologists that there is an under diagnosis of women and the reason is that the criteria for autism were developed in relation to how boys and men “present”. We tend to expect different things of men and women socially, which is why they can present so differently. I meet a lot of undiagnosed men and women who don’t present in the “typical” way, in that they’re highly verbal, imaginative and extrovert, particularly in the arts and academia.

Do you always disclose publicly that you’re autistic?

No, because I’ve found that most people are a bit sceptical or disbelieving or immediately say something that shows they don’t know much about autism. I have disclosed on some very public platforms, including when I presented Pick of the Week on Radio 4 for example, but I haven’t say, told my dentist, or some of my friends.

How to you find the sensory experience of performing? Do you make any adjustments?

The sensory experience of performing is perfect for me. Soft lights, quietness, just me speaking! (Though I do love talking to my audiences). I hate performing when there’s distracting noise around, but that’s not good for any performer or performance situation.

There is an ancient stereotype that autistic people “don’t get jokes.” In your academic research, you have written extensively on the power of comedy. Do you think humour can be used as a tool to change people’s preconceptions?

Yes, definitely. Humour can relax people and make them more able to take on board things they’d usually have trouble believing. It can also bring them together. In the case of autism, laughing at an autistic person’s humour is also a perfect living embodiment of the fact that the diagnostic criteria are not nuanced enough. Stand up is also a brilliant way for marginalised people to “turn the tables” so that temporarily they have the most power in a room, but in a way which isn’t threatening to an audience used to being the “normal” ones.

Has being diagnosed as autistic later than the national average put a new perspective on older material?

Definitely. Being autistic impacts on everything I do and am, even if that’s not obvious to other people. I only realised this when I was doing a performance at the Scottish Autism Conference fringe last November (hosted by PARC in Glasgow). I felt bad that I’d not written more specifically autistic material, then realised that material about say, liking going out to eat on my own, or not wanting children, came from a very autistic perspective! I know a lot of autistic people do have children, but something about how I talk about needing my own space strikes me as very autistic. A lot of my work is about not fitting in and how that’s okay.

Do you have any advice for autistic people who want to get into stand up?

Play the long game. It can take 10-15 years to “find your voice” as a comic. Comedy has definite rules. You can learn them but the “finding your voice” bit is something to do with feeling confident in expressing your unique perspective on the world. We autistic people certainly have that, though actually getting it across to people who aren’t autistic is sometimes like learning a foreign language, which takes time and patience and practice at your craft. At least you get instant feedback about whether if it’s working with comedy. People either laugh or they don’t.

Loads of stand ups are fairly neurodivergent though as it’s a job that suits people who may not fit in normal office jobs. I’m more of a poet than a comic nowadays and think poetry is generally a kinder world for autistic people than stand up (particularly women).

What advice would you give to someone who has just received an autism diagnosis?

Connect with the autistic community, on Twitter using the #actuallyautistic hashtag and by joining Facebook groups. Read blogs and books by autistic people. I was lucky to find an autism-led post diagnosis group (which is now the AMASE mutual aid society in Edinburgh).

I have become wary of the medical profession and psychologists in relation to autism as they seem to lack basic knowledge about autistic adults. My GP knows nothing about it, my local diagnostic centre (not where I was diagnosed- I went to the Tizard Centre in Kent) refused to let me join a group or access services as I wasn’t diagnosed there. I was shocked at how little support there is (on the positive side, as I say, I have learned so much from autistic writers and bloggers).

What are your upcoming projects?

I’m continuing to tour my show about Northern women “Where There’s Muck There’s Bras.” I’m developing a show which will look at autism and also Doctor Who! It will be called “Bigger on the Inside” and a “work in progress” version will premiere at the Autism and the Arts Festival at the University of Kent on April 26th. I’m also working on a next poetry collection about Northernness and all sorts of things which will be published by Nine Arches in 2020.

Also, I’ve made a couple of comedy series for Radio 4 and am now working on a proposal for a radio sitcom about a group of autistic adults. I’ve written some of it. A couple of problems- one, it actually looks like it might be better as a telly piece. Two, I don’t know if the world’s ready for something like this, as there is just so much ignorance and stigma about the most basic things to do with autism. I feel like I’ve got to try get it out there though.

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