Here are some questions and answers to help you get to know a little bit more about Dr. Wenn.
1. When did you first realise you were different?
I think that I always knew that I was not like others...but I didn't know why or how.
2. How did it affect your family relationships? For example did your parents realise you were different? In retrospect could they have done anything more to help you as a child?
My parents were so busy with having a large family and often running their own business that Wenn's idiosyncrasies were just 'Wenn being Wenn'! I was mostly left to my own devices. At times I felt as if there was much anger directed towards me, but I never understood why. I didn't really receive the help and support that I could have benefited from, as a child.
3. As a child, did you find it hard to make friends with other children, or were you not really interested in that?
This was very difficult. I didn't want lots of friends, in fact I was much more drawn to animals than to people, but, one friend would have been great. But, I had very little success. I was viewed as 'A Know all' and the only way that I could relate to other children was if we had an interest in common, e.g. dogs or medicine (In my teens I read medical books because they fascinated me). I was interested, at a distance, in having a friend...but I lacked the social 'know how' of reciprocity and quite often would go over board to 'buy' friends; influence others with knowledge; or, become their 'helper' to earn a friend.
4. Did you have rituals/obsessions at an early age? If so how did they develop? And what benefit did you derive from them? Did new rituals/obsessions replace old ones? Do you (or did you) feel that you needed to control them?
Yes, I always had rituals and obsessions, but I prefer to call these 'passions'. Yes, they changed over time. However, they were always based around my interests: animals ,insects, medicine, engines... I like to wear clothes that are familiar (new ones hang around for ages) eat foods that are the same (I could live on baked beans on toast; mashed potato, carrots and gravy; or McDonalds!!) I hated it when routines changed and would become quite miserable, almost lose motivation for anything. I needed to be sure of what would happen; I need to know so that I can know what will happen, what to expect... I am still like this today, however, I have more flexibility than I did as a child!
5. What was your experience of school like? Did you have the same problems at school as you did at college in the UK?
At first I was interested in school but after getting into trouble constantly and not understanding what was going on around me, school became a nightmare!! I was bullied and teased mercilessly!! I just wanted the world to stop so that I could get off and go back to being with my dog!! This did change when I left school and moved onto college, however. I think it changed because I am academic, more than social, and at College and Uni. I met others who were more like me...interested in study.
6. What about sensitivities to sound/touch/light etc. are these are problem? If so, can you explain how/why this is and whether they have improved as you have gotten older?
Yes, my ears are very sensitive to particular sounds and certain noises really hurt me...even today. I wear tinted glasses to help me cope with the light that hurts my eyes and I only wear cotton next to my skin because of discomfort with how other materials feel. I don't know why this is so, but it always has been I haven't noticed much improvement over time though
7. Are you able to empathise and understand other people's emotions? Can you tell someone's state of mind by looking at their face?
I think I'm good at doing empathy, as long as I know what's going on. I live with synaesthesia so I tend to 'see' emotion as a colour, rather than 'feel' it. I'm not good at 'reading' another's body language...I often 'feel' that if someone is unhappy...then it must be my fault. I make others angry...I am learning that this isn't always the case but I still find this difficult. I don't 'feel' the emotions of others, unless it impacts upon myself. However, I have learnt how to 'listen' to others and how to ask them how they are feeling and what this might mean for them. I am naturally inquisitive about human behaviour and driven to understand both myself and others. This means asking lots and lots of questions all of the time (can be very demanding on people) not always appreciated!
8. How did you learn to compensate for being different? Did you have to learn social skills by trial and error? If so how? And do you find that these social skills become easier with practice.
My initial response today to this question, is that I don't compensate because I accept who I am and celebrate this. But, yes, I did learn social skills by trial and error. Yes, they have become easier over time (much, much time). Re: compensation I guess I compensate, if you like, by specialising in one area and becoming good at that. Then I have something to offer; something that others are interested in.
9. What situations do you find the most difficult to deal with? Do you find it difficult talking to strangers who try to start up a conversation with you? Are you happy to talk about the difficulties that autism gives you?
Anything that I am not in control of. Public transport; pubs, clubs, parties and so on. I love to talk about things I am interested in and will generally steer a conversation that way. I am very happy to talk about anything to do with autism/Asperger's...even/especially if it is to do with my own experience.
10. What's the most important advice you would give to a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with autism?
This is difficult...there are several things that a parent would benefit from, i.e. remembering that their child will grow up and they won't stay the way they are today. Autism is about DELAY, its just that, DELAY not CANCELLATION! The very best thing is to work with their child's passions/strengths/interests… using these to build connections to everyday life will work better than any other intervention.
A parent will need to look after themselves and take time to do this, i.e. foster time out for relaxation and pleasure; attend to personal relationships with partner and any other family members...other children. A parent needs lots of support and they need to know that that's OK. Teachers, psychologists and other professionals will not always see things the same way that a parent does...this can be upsetting but, as parents we need to fight for our children and not be put off by the ignorance of others. All of this means that for parents, it is better to join with others and share the experience, rather than try to go it alone!
11. What is your favourite thing about being autistic?
Autism is different for everyone, however, for me it enables me to connect to things I'm interested in and allows me to focus. This ability helped get me through my studies at Uni. On the flip side I'm not bothered by what others think of me and don't get embarrassed, which is useful.
12. What are your main areas of interest when it comes to autism research?
When it comes to autism research I'm most interested in how we use 'attention' as autistics. I'm also keen to understand the issues around object/emotion/person--- permanence, that tend to occur in autism and not in typical development. Studying how the brain uses GAMMA in autism intrigues me, as well as how the sensory system works differently in autism compared to in typical development.
13. What are some areas that researchers and service providers should pay more attention to?
Researchers and Service providers need to pay more attention to listening to autistics. For far too long we have not had any say in what happens to or for us.
14. How does autism relate to your identity?
Being autistic isn't just a part of who I am, it's woven through the whole of me. I am an autistic individual and autism colours the whole of my experience.
15. What are some of the things that have helped you to become well-educated and independent?
Being well-educated and learning about life, the world around and within me, is a drive I've always had. My personality helps me here because loving to learn is imbedded in who I am. Living in Australia gave me access to an education too… passing adult exams allowing me to attend university and also gaining high enough grades at school helped. But, this only happened as an adult. During my typical school years, I didn't do well. I learned more as an adult, when my dyslexia and dyspraxia were accommodated and I was allowed extra time plus an invigilator who sat in my living room during an exam. I had these extra accommodations which meant I was enabled rather than disabled. There's no way I would have coped taking exams in a typical exam environment at school. Becoming interdependent is how I view my independence. I have learned how to ask for help and I now get the support I need to live as an independent adult.
16. What helps you to relax?
I love science fiction books and TV shows. I find these very relaxing! If I'm worried about something I try to write it down and talk it over with others… I relax best in the company of my cat or good friends, who are very accepting.
17. What kind of music do you like?
Although I spent 2 years learning to play a violin, which culminated with me playing on stage with other children at a school concert, I never mastered this instrument. I love music, all my children do too. My son Guy plays in a popular hill billy rock group, he is a double bass person. Check the group out here.
My father was a musician, he played keyboard, a piano accordion and the mouth organ. I inherited one of his mouth organs, a treasured instrument. I can play it, but not like he did. I very much enjoy listening to music. My favourite classical piece is Dvorak's New World Symphony. My favourite song is 'The Power of Two' by The Indigo Girls. 'Through My Eyes' sung by Thanh Bui and written by Valerie Foley was the theme song from a conference I spoke at. I reckon it's the cry from so many autistic hearts!
18. If people could learn one thing from one of your talks or training sessions what would you most like them to take away or approach differently?
The one thing I would like people to know about autism is it's our default setting and enables us to be single minded. This means if you work with us, using our strengths and interests will bless us both.
19. In your opinion how has society become more accepting and understanding of autistic people since you were first diagnosed in 1994?
Society has become more accepting in some ways of autism, in that it is aware we exist more, but, it still expects we will conform to societal norms and fails to get that our autism is the norm for us.
20. What are some of the differences between societies understanding of autism and the services provided between Australia, the UK and other countries you visit?
With autism provision there are some differences between some countries I visit. Most of the differences though are cultural. For example, Switzerland in general is a more reserved country where America is more forward and 'out there.' This has an impact upon provision because it speaks to the societies expectations. This isn't always a good thing though! In some ways it's easier to be yourself in Switzerland, but, in other ways there isn't social funding by governments so much as support is funded privately by insurances. In France, autism is still mainly thought of as psychosocial in form therefore is subject to psychotherapy, rather than appropriate early interventions to aid learning.
21. What do you most enjoy about sharing your experiences and knowledge about autism with others?
I love sharing my knowledge and experiences of autism with others, especially when 'a light goes on' and someone finally gets what autism is about. I know if the typical world around an autistic individual understands that person, their world will be loads safer and happier!
Questions 1-10 compiled by John Muggleton (1998) and 11-21 by Tori Haar (2017). Answers given or updated by Dr. Wenn in August 2017.