Over the past couple of years, I have joined the ranks of autistic ‘Experts by Experience’ (EbE) who take part in consultations with organisations ranging from charities to the National Health Service to local councils. When I first heard that phrase I was intrigued, because in the academic world somebody like me would normally be an expert on a topic that stands apart from their lived experience. So, whereas I am a Professor of Music, in which I have worked since childhood, the pillars of my expertise do not rely on my lived experience as a composer and musician, but rather on the scientific and artistic knowledge about music that I have accumulated along the way.
The need for these EbE has arisen fairly recently and mostly from social care. It is recognised by the sector that talking to professionals alone is inadequate, if you want to capture the knowledge required to make progress. For that, the voices of people on the receiving end also need to be heard and indeed given an equal footing. So, EbE are recruited to advise and contribute to discussions of strategy and policy as well as practical and organisational issues. In many ways, this is a very welcome development. Giving voice to traditionally under-represented groups has to be a good thing. However, there are also a few problems.
First there is the question of representation. I have frequently raised this issue. While I am delighted to be involved and contribute my insights, I am hardly representative of the whole of autistic people. In fact, those people who most need the services provided are often the ones least represented. For example, non-speaking autistic people and those with learning difficulties are usually absent.
Second, there is the thorny issue of remuneration. In all the groups I belong to, my advice and input has been sought without remuneration. Yet the professionals involved are being paid. So, a familiar picture of oppression and exploitation emerges in which autistic people provide their services for nothing, while others make their careers out of autism. I have raised this frequently and vociferously, and I am confident that the professionals do understand the problem, but nothing has been done so far and so resentments build among the autistic community.
Finally, there is the question of how EbE are chosen. Everybody has a lived experience, of course, so in theory any autistic person could be included. But there are clearly qualities that are required of EbE. These typically include an ability to talk openly and share with others. Since these qualities are determined by neurotypicals, this can become a source of difficulty, especially when autistic people start to express themselves. I have heard of meetings where rules have been set that constrain the EbE, when it is precisely in their unique expression that the autism resides.
Despite these problems, I fundamentally like the idea of EbE and am happy to make my contribution as one. But the process of selection is fairly unclear at the moment. It would be good to have a transparent set of selection criteria, both to encourage inclusivity and to discourage people from arbitrarily using the EbE label.