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  • Kate Wilson

From Undiagnosed to Unapologetic: Stags on “129.5 Steps to Autistic Success”

Stags’ show, 129.5 Steps to Autistic Success, describes his autism diagnosis as “the best thing that happened [to him]”, and I can completely see why. Before the interview even starts, Stags and I are knee deep in everything we don’t understand: the football, high school, and neurotypical people. There’s an eccentricity about him that you’d definitely imagine at the Fringe, but for Stags, it’s also charmingly realised into his day-to-day life, and accompanies a kind of confidence that only ever comes with wholeheartedly accepting your differences.

Kate Wilson: Your show, 129.5 Steps to Autistic Success, focuses largely on hilarious mishaps you experienced growing up as an undiagnosed autistic, but at times also touches on some quite upsetting, or perhaps unkind, moments. In fact, many people have described growing up undiagnosed as a traumatic experience. What did your autism diagnosis mean to you, then? Did your diagnosis, or even the show itself, help in reconciling any of these incidents?

Stags: When I’ve been writing and putting it together, always in the back of my mind, I’m kind of slipping in – and I don’t know how noticeable this is – bits of information in between each story. I’ll say something, then slip in different aspects of my diagnosis. I have a lot of little things that I want to put into every show, because I’d spent a lot of my life knowing I was a thing. I just assumed that there wasn’t a name for it yet. Similarly, when I was younger, I realised I was probably what people would call now ‘non-binary’. I used to feel that gender really didn’t mean the same thing to me. A lot of people would go “Oh! He’s the one who thinks he’s David Bowie!” Since then, there’s been lots of different terms; genderqueer, genderfluid, etcetera. At the time, it’s just that nobody really talked about labels. I also remember having to research a lot of things. With fashion, for example, I never seemed to know what was trendy. I remember researching where trousers came from, and how the cravat was adapted from the neckerchief. I asked around about it when I got to my 20s, and I remember being told by others that they’d just copied their older brother… like oh god! Is that what you do? I didn’t know you could copy people! I thought you had to study it! Everyone else was rocking mullets and shell suits at the time and I was trying to dress like James Dean!

I thought about all the times I’d looked into my autism, and in between each one of the stories tried to leave a breadcrumb trail for anyone who might’ve been me, three years ago, when I was going through my diagnosis. A lot of days I also mention how many people I interviewed or spoke to, and that has been a really big part of things. I’ve really liked the fascinating conversations I’ve had during the Fringe, after the show, of people talking (who are neurodiverse). The conversations have flowed so easily, and they’ve gotten so in depth so quickly! It’s helped me in realising that there’s no communication deficit; we just communicate differently. If there was ever a part of me that thought there was something“wrong” with me, then it’s just completely been wiped out! It’s really been like a celebration.

KW: Just on a similar note, did you ever experience any pushback from friends or family regarding your diagnosis? I know certainly with the generation above mine there seems to be some pushback; the assumption you were just a “weird kid” or that “everyone thinks they’re autistic these days!”. Did your diagnosis ever help you to go back to any of these people and prove their assumptions wrong?

S: I knew people close to me would have an opinion. I’ve not got a big family, but to those people I purposefully started leaving little breadcrumbs. “Maybe you should to watch this show?”, or “did you know this person is autistic?”- just getting them used to it. My mum has a great sense of humour; I think it’s a bit of a running joke. When we have a conversation now, she’ll joke about something being an autistic trait and I have to break it to her that actually, it is! I’d say 50% of people are really nice about it, 40% are a bit awkward, and the remaining 10% treat me like I’m six years old! I tend to get a lot of comments like “Oh really? You don’t seem it…” or people asking you to prove it, ask in what way, or just say you look ‘fine’. I know they’re not doing it out of malice, it’s just that society is only just starting to recognise that we’re out there. I like to think of it as an opportunity to introduce ourselves!

KW: What did you hope would come of writing and performing 129.5 Steps, and what would you like to do next?

S: I find I like to work on what I had the year before. You’ve got a foundation to build something on, then. I would like to perform it elsewhere, but the thing with the Fringe is that most shows tend to be an hour; if you take that elsewhere, you start to increase show length, maybe to an hour and a half. I’ve actually been testing a theory recently. I’ve started finding ants, placing some food down, and creating an elaborate shortcut to it. Eventually, I found that one would eventually take that different route, be rewarded for it, and then go back and tell everyone. Suddenly, the rest would all follow! It felt like a really good depiction of neurodivergence in society, and I think something like that would be a good focus for next year’s show. Maybe just the “half step” to autistic success, rather than 129.5!

I’ve really just had a lot of conversations about how the benefits of neurodivergence to society have been squandered a little bit. Someone I spoke to talked about having staggered sleep hours, because some autistic people just don’t sleep the same hours; those people who sit up at night or do their work overnight, like a night guardian. I’m like that on late night coaches. I always tell my friends not to worry, because I know I won’t be sleeping. I never get bored, I’m just happy to sit round and think. I think that’s my place… I’m the night guardian! This is what I was born to be! It really makes me wonder how many other roles we’re missing out on because of neurotypicality.

KW: How do you think people can better support or give platforms to neurodivergent creators, and why do you think it’s important to support autistic people in finding careers they enjoy?

S: I suppose we’re talking about the value people bring to society. I think the more people who can thrive, the better it is for a society! People being interested helps to create opportunities for new ideas to be put forward. We’re really a kind of society in conversation with itself; learning and discussing different aspects of itself. I think if we’re not including a range of human experiences then we’re really missing out. If you look back throughout history, it’s always been a benefit to learn more and include more. As societies continue to move forward, I think you really need as much of that as possible. It’s always a benefit.

Also, people just generally need to be heard! People quite often want to help and just need to know the right way to do so. For example, I know when I was first learning about autism there was lots of suggestion to use Person-First language [saying “person with autism” rather than “autistic person”]. Then, autistic people reaffirmed “I’m an autistic person- Why would you take that away? I like having this term!” It’s easier for everyone if we listen and understand each other. I can’t see any downside to it at all! I’d be interested to hear why we wouldn’t want to listen to other voices. Let’s hear from everyone!

In terms of how, it’s interesting isn’t it. I think unless you speak to people, you won’t realise their barriers. It’s about making an effort to bring stuff forward. There’s a whole host of ways I’m trying got make gigs more inclusive. An improv workshop I run in Derby for example, “What is improv”, where I can just ask “do you know what it is? Let’s just talk about it!” You can’t get people to come to things if they don’t know what it is or don’t feel welcome! Also, letting people know they’re welcome to things.

KW: Leaving the door open, right?

S: Even just letting them know there’s a door!

KW: Finally, what advice would you give to fellow newly diagnosed/undiagnosed autistic people in trying to navigate creative spaces or, better yet, the wider world?

S: I suppose firstly, don’t be afraid to ask! You’d be surprised how many people want to hear different perspectives. For every one person who wants a specific group of people, there’s loads who want to hear from you. Just reach out!

Also, recognise you’re going to have a lot of advantages. It’s not all trauma! I suffer from anxiety for example, and realised that when people without anxiety go on stage they’re terrified! It’s really hard for them to manage. For me on the other hand, the moment that alarm goes off every morning, I’m already feeling that. I’m so used to it that when I’m on stage, I feel safe. I don’t even have to do a two-sided conversation! That’s why I feel stand up is actually easier than everyday life. The idea of having a different perspective is a huge benefit in the arts. So yeah, contact people! I love getting messages. People want to hear you.

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