Jody O'Neill“Autism is myriad things and myriad experiences.”

As heard on The Ray D'Arcy Show

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What happens when you’re diagnosed as autistic at the age of 39? For actor and writer Jody O’Neill, it changed everything. Jody told Ray D’Arcy that the diagnosis meant she navigated the world differently and it allowed her to stop being “a failed neurotypical person”: 

“And stop trying to be this idea of what people – or what you perceive people expect you to be and you can start focusing on, ‘Ok, well what are the things that I would actually like to be? What’s the stuff I would like to do and how can I make that achievable for myself? What accommodations do I need to put in place?’” 

In 2016, Jody’s son Tom was diagnosed as autistic when he was 4 and it was the research she did on autism before Tom was diagnosed that led Jody to self-identify as autistic, before her own diagnosis in 2019. The fact that Tom behaved a lot like his mother initially led Jody and her partner to resist the suggestion that he might be autistic: 

“We delayed even getting a diagnosis because I was like, ‘Well, sure, he’s exactly like me, he reacts to the world in the same way I do.’” 

So, given the fact that Jody wasn’t autistic, then Tom probably wasn’t either, right? Tom’s diagnosis and Jody’s subsequent identifying as autistic meant the world made so much more sense than it had before. Most people who haven’t encountered it, Jody suggests, have a very superficial idea of what autism is: 

“You might have a very superficial idea. You might have, you know, Rain Man in your head as a picture of “that’s autism”, without knowing that autism is myriad things and myriad experiences and ways of experiencing and interacting with the world.” 

Jody had always felt somewhat socially anxious and awkward, conditions she put down to shyness, awkwardness and incompetence. And the experience of parenthood meant Jody faced the sort of social anxiety she hadn’t felt since she was in school: 

“That school gate interaction with all the other parents, I was suddenly right back in the corridors of secondary school, kind of going, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here. I don’t know what to do.’ And so it makes you examine, I think, your life from a different perspective when you become a parent.” 

As parenthood made her go into settings where she says she was deeply out of her comfort zone, Jody realised that a lot of the scaffolds that she had built for herself, to help her navigate her way in the world, came crashing down. Following her diagnosis, she was able to understand that she just saw the world differently than neurotypical people do. Jody quoted her favourite definition of autism when asked how she would explain it to someone by Ray:   

“I go with the As I Am definition, because I really like it and As I Am’s definition is that it is a developmental condition, and it means that the way that a person communicates, that they interact with and understand other people and the world around them is different than people who don’t have that condition.” 

You can hear Ray’s full conversation with Jody O’Neill by going here

Fire, Water, Earth, Air, an interactive audio piece created by Carl Kennedy, Tom Kennedy and Jody O’Neill will launch 12 June, as part of Crinniú na nÓg. Details here

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2021

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