Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

An interview with autistic FC pioneer


Consciousness by autistic author and artist Donna Williams http://www.donnawilliams.net Richard Attfield is a fellow autistic artist and one of the authors featured in Autism and The Myth of The Person Alone edited by Doug Biklen. He was one of the first people with autism in the UK to use the augmented communication device called a Canon Communicator and developed functional communication through FC – Facilitated Communication, in his teens. As an adult he has progressively gained more verbal communication. He’s an activist, an artist, and an inspiration. I give you Mr Richard Attfield.

Hi Richard, you are one of the most passionate autistic advocates for FC.
Explain a bit about FC for the readers and tell me about your journey in striving for the recognition and acceptance of FC.


FC or supported typing is merely one person supporting the hand or arm of another person with poor motor control to enable them to point to letters/words or type on a keyboard to communicate their thoughts.

There are two aspects of FC, a fact which people do not really take on board. One is the ability to be able to physically type. And this is the area where the majority of people have extreme difficulty. The other issue is the ability to be able to communicate by the written/typed word. And one has to have the knowledge of how to spell words. If one has never read or learnt to spell because one has never been taught, you are really on the very thin edge of the wedge and are distinctly disadvantaged. I really feel for all these children/people; they have before them a means by which they could finally communicate but they do not have the tools to enable them to do so. How soul destroying is that. And then they are demeaned
for their inability by people who would deny them the opportunity.

So as I said these are actually two different issues. I think people have confused these issues. If one has never been able to communicate in any form, think what a huge step that is and what emotional turmoil it must cause. Excitement, hope, this is such a huge leap, it completely changes ones concept of oneself as a person. Some people need support because it is such an emotional journey.

However in fact, having said all that I see Fc as no different to any other child/person learning to use a computer to do home work, write essays, write letters, e-mails etc. The only difference is one of the perception of society. Children/people are perceived as disabled by a society that denies them equality. And obviously the skills to read, spell, and type (in place of writing for some people) should be taught at the same age as a child’s peers. Otherwise, at a later date, a person would have to try to make up for years of lost opportunities in education and social skills. It is discrimination against people under the umbrella of disability to deny them equal opportunities and an equal education.

Many of the children/people who have communicated through supported typing, never had the opportunities to learn to read or write or express themselves in any form. They have been thrown into the middle of the mire rather than had the building blocks of a normal education.

I would like to point out that children who do not communicate through speech are no different to those that do. Being unable to express one thoughts or feelings through speech is not the same as not having any thoughts or feelings.
How does a child explore their environment to the full if they have poor speech/no speech?

And yes, I am passionate advocate of fc because I have lived the experience of being denied equality, an equal education,
and being labelled retarded, and learning disabled and also being unable to communicate via speech to hold a conversation.
Actually people could never agree on whether I was learning disabled or above average intelligence. Which is rather ironic. How does one make it through nineteen years of life and one person viewed you as extremely intelligent and
another did not. I was eventually said to be physically disabled not learning disabled but it was a very long harsh journey, one that no child/person should have to go through.

I actually discovered what is referred to as fc for myself. I was the first person in the UK perceived as autistic to have a canon communicator and one of the first to have tinted lenses. I had never heard of fc. I began to type at the age of sixteen on a canon communicator because I finally realised that I was never going to be able to be able to hold a conversation verbally. I drowned in fear at that time believing that people were never going to recognise my intelligence.

I actually spoke at the age of a year, and had a vast vocabulary as a child. However I had very little input from speech services and I was denied access to speech therapy as a child. I could speak a sentence here and there but I was never able to hold a conversation. I always believed that one day my speech would improve. However it never did. I therefore like many people in my position
looked for another option. And that option happened to be both independent and supported typing. (what is known as fc)

As I state, I have typed both independently and with support (in my case I have ataxic cerebral palsy which caused me extreme difficulties as a child and young adult.) My hands were very weak and my co-ordination was poor as was (and still is compared to other people) my fine motor control. As a child I had to work a thousand times harder just to stand, walk, move, and talk. I also have Mearles/Irlen/Scotopic Sensitivity issues which also caused me extreme
difficulties as a child and young adult.

I was typing one day on a canon communicator at the age of sixteenish (a normal keyboard was too large re movement difficulties and sight difficulties) and I grabbed hold of my mother’s index finger and middle finger for support. So I held on to
her two fingers, this gave me sufficient support to type at a quicker speed and also to type for a much longer period. I always had trouble typing fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. It is extremely frustrating to be five sentences behind what
one is thinking because it is so slow to type. If you were speaking a sentence it would take a few seconds but longer to type one. But I would like to make it clear that at this time I could and did type independently. I moved on to type as my hands grew stronger, with someone holding the sleeve of my jumper/coat (this steadied my movement and allowed me to concentrate on what I was typing.)
For me as a child, the printed word re-enforced the spoken word.

When I began to type I merely put into practice the lessons of my childhood. My mother had taught me to both read and write from the age of five. But I also began to read at the age of two and a half. I can actually remember the words that I read in some of the books. And this was during the same period that the Doctors/Speech Therapists were stating that I did not speak. What they should have said
is that I did not speak to them. And perhaps if they had spoken ‘to me’ instead of ‘about me’ I might have felt more inclined to speak to them. They should have taken on board the actual facts rather than making assumptions based on the fact that I had ataxic cerebral palsy. Shortly after I began to type on the canon I was able to state that I had difficulties with print that danced around/jumped away, blurred
out of sight and I acquired tinted lenses. The tinted lenses calmed the whole environment. The difficulties that I had were those of movement – a physical difficulty. A combination of being able to type to communicate and the tinted lenses turned my life around.

I think the issue actually becomes one of equal rights and equal opportunities along side the right to communicate. Which is where fc comes into the equation. I know that everywhere every day children/people are being denied the right of communication on grounds of disability. No one has the right to deny a child/person the opportunity to communicate.

As a child I was denied entry into mainstream at the age of five on grounds of disability after attending mainstream play school. My mother taught me at home until the age of nine. But then I spent ten years of my life in segregated schooling. At no point did anyone ask what I felt. I was never given a choice. I was labelled and denied equality. I have also lived the other side of the coin where I have fought against the perception of disability, and finally gained access to mainstream education at the age of nineteen to study at College where I was shown respect and finally gained acknowledgement of my intelligence.

In my opinion the children/people that have typed to communicate have shown outstanding courage against adversity. They have made it through against all the odds that have been stacked against them. And every one of them has my utmost respect. I have been witness to people struggle to type one word and I have nothing but admiration for their determination and courage. How much effort that one word has cost them – sometimes to fall on stony ground.

Each of us who type to communicate has had a different experience. (For anyone who is interested in reading about my experience in some detail I suggest they read “Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone”.)


Richard, another Richard, Richard Exley, became a local MP in his area and was a spokesperson on disability with the UN. If he, as an Aspie can do that, do you see yourself in politics?


Donna, I see my roll at this time in furthering the movement of fc for children who are being denied the right of communication That is an area where I feel I can be of most help. So at this present time, although I had thought about it this year, my answer would be no not at this present time, I am not considering politics.


Richard, you are an accomplished writer and poet. Would you share some of those accomplishments but also how hard it was emotionally to dare to trust people with personal words.


As I mentioned I eventually gained entry into mainstream College and studied at “A” level in English Literature and Art History. I thought it was amazing to be able to study English Literature. I received awards at college for my entries into the College Writing Competitions. I was the overall winner for two years. And also I won awards twice for my entry under Journalism. I also received awards for Personal Achievement and Outstanding Commitment. (Perseverance against Adversity). I was amazed that I won these awards. I felt very humble when I received the letter inviting me to an award ceremony and I was surprised that I had been nominated. Also I later contributed a chapter to “Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone”, along with other people whom type to communicate, Lucy Blackman, Jamie Burke, Sue Rubin and others. In the writing of my chapter (with Professor Biklen) I had so much fun. It was the best of times.

I never really had the difficulty in sharing words through typing. It was the most wonderful experience to be able to express my thoughts and feelings. I probably made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I could have worded things differently, like all people, and I put it down to inexperience and youth. And my rush to get the words out. I think we can all think, Oh, I wish I had not said that. Or have wanted to say something and have known it was not the time or place. Communicating is so wonderful, there are one million words in the British language, but I quite often think when I am writing, that it is not sufficiently expressive. I embrace language – it is the love of my life. As a child I always carried a book with me, I may not have been able to speak very well, but I could hold on to the words in a book and know that I could understand them.


Richard, you have a great love of art and spent some time exploring watercolour painting yourself. Turner was your favorite. Is he still? What do you think of some of the most well known autistic artists? One in particular whose work I love is Christophe Pillault. Have you seen his work?


Donna, although I still appreciate the work of Turner I always particularly liked Monet, I think his work is exceptional. I love his exploration of colour, shadow and light. I also like the work of L.S. Lowry’s, Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cezanne, along with many lesser-known artists, David Howell, David Beschi, Tony Hudson, and Patrick Bradfield and Jim Spencer I appreciate most artwork every piece of work has its own merit. And I find your artwork very honest and very painful.

I very much regret the fact that I was never able to study art as a subject at school. I have dabbled in watercolours; one can express ones emotions and ideas, the “musings of the imagination” (Curtis Tappenden) through the media of watercolour. And yes, I have seen the work of Christophe Pillault; it is very emotive.

Richard, you have achieved a lot but some how I still feel your biggest achievements were your conquest of personal struggles.
Do you feel you are pretty ‘sorted’ now you’re in your 30s?


Donna, I am so much further down the line than I was fifteen years ago. But life is a journey and the challenge is to move the mountains. And in the journey I have been the loser and the winner. I have gained communication but the struggle has at times taken its toll.

“And as we shed the tears
We swore we would not weep
We stare truth in the face
And scorn its disbelief”

Taken from one my poems “We Thunder into Battle”.

I was 30 in February this year. I have rarely known peace in my life at one level. I could never accept the limitations imposed on me by ataxic cerebral palsy. I always have continued to push forward the boundaries. To stand, walk, communicate and communicate until I was able to express myself as myself. I have challenged social concepts of disability at a personnel level. I would never allow myself to be labelled and put into the box where people tried to put me. I always saw freedom as my goal. But how free is any one person? William Wallace is reputed to have shouted FREEDOM on his death, perhaps that is the point at which we are free.


What sort of achievable things are still on your wish list for this life?


To continue to help other people. To work towards social justice for all. To continue to write. To continue to be able to communicate and embrace life.


The autism world is so divided with the cureists (autism needs cure) one side, the culturalists (autism is culture) the other side.
You have struggled with severe sensory perceptual problems, big gut and immune issues, impulse control, anxiety and motor planning challenges and didn’t get functional communication till your teens with extreme discrimination for so many years. In short, its been no easy ride for you. I’m a moderate, able to appreciate aspects of both sides. Where do you stand in that debate?


I think that each of us are individuals. I have never been able to find any common ground to any degree with people under the label of autism other than as people. (Obviously my difficulties have been different because I had ataxic cerebral palsy as a child.) I view myself as a person not a person with a disability label. I view people as people not disability labels. I trod everything I defined as autism into the dust. I dug a grave and I buried it. I said a prayer over it, wished it well and told it to go. I kicked down the walls and broke free. I can only state I am more comfortable in the world with people, with my family, my friends. That is where I belong, where I am free as an individual to be who I am. I am at my happiest when I am able to communicate.

I embrace communication with every fibre of my being. Segregation was the worst experience of my life. I can only describe it as hell. The words, “forgive them for they know not what they doeth” come to mind. Some days I reach a point where I could cry for all WE have lost as people. (And that applies equally to all people everywhere with a disability label). Most days I embrace the world, and then a word, a look, a remark, brings me back into the world of wanting to withdraw back into the darkness of where I had been. The denial of other people of myself as a person. But I will never allow that to happen. I will fight back with every ounce of strength that I have within me. And if I fail in the struggle than I fail as myself not as a concept of society.


Thanks for the trust in being in this interview.