Why did Niall Aslam leave Love Island? Two weeks ago we were only told it was because of “Personal reasons”, now he’s braving the stigma connected with an Autism/Aspergers diagnosis and spoken out to say this was behind his decision to leave. Here “Aah, because of Aspergers” the journalists and commentators are saying, “Yeah, er social difficulties and that” they add. The chances of getting some meaningful insight from them into what this means are about as high as for Adam Collard (the gas lighting one) deciding to train as a Relate counsellor after he leaves the show.
Now, I don’t know Niall and I’ve only watched one episode of Love Island (I didn’t inhale, but I could see a slippery slope of addiction beckoning if I carried on), so I really can’t speak for him, but I can give some insight into why being in an environment like Love Island might be hard for an autistic person. This point of view is important, because while we’re getting some of the cliched medical criteria in the stories about his diagnosis, we’re not getting the insights built up by the many actually autistic people who are finally getting their voices heard about the daily realities of life on the spectrum (I would recommend the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter as a good starting point here). These insights would tend more to point to sensory sensitivities and things like autistic burnouts and social hangovers, which aren’t even mentioned in the descriptions of this way of processing and experiencing the world which have been written by psychologists and psychiatrists.
Many of the doctors still believe that an autistic way of being is not as normal or valid as a non-autistic one. They’re not that interested in the inside view or feeling of being autistic. Along with the stigma associated with the diagnosis, which Niall is bravely confronting by being open about it, an autistic person who only hears the medical view of the condition (Perhaps when they’re diagnosed as a child as Niall was), is less likely to reach the self-understanding necessary to live well as an autist. It’s partly why the suicide rate for autistic people is NINE TIMES that of the general population. Anyhoo, that’s a rant for another time. I’m just going to suggest some reasons why the Love Island environment would be hard for an autistic person and hope that this also adds to some people’s understanding of the condition (I struggle with the word condition, autism is more about how someone’s brain and body is wired, it’s not separable from them and it’s not one single thing. Language around this stuff is hard).
- The noise! Loud voices echoing across the pool, twenty people all talking at once and shouting about the “Do bits society”, the bleep of the phone. It would basically do your brain in. Lots of autistic people wear noise-cancelling headphones when they go out into public spaces.
- Smells. I imagine there were sometimes choking clouds of Lynx and Elnett to walk through before a re-coupling. Partly, I jest, but basically it would have been a very intense sensory environment and that all contributes to overloading an autistic brain. Also tastes- I imagine the housemates don’t get that much say over what they eat and when. Many autistic people have food preferences and sensitivities.
- Social overload. This is the biggie. This is not about social competence- Niall, for example, clearly made good friends in the villa who were devastated that he left- it’s about the energy cost of actually talking to people, reading their body language signals, working out what to say etc. For non-autistic people this stuff is their native tongue- for autistic people it can be like speaking a foreign language, even if they’ve learned it pretty well. Autistic people talk about “Social hangovers”; a sort of brain fogged, exhausted feeling after doing lots of socialising. It’s one of the reasons that working environments can be difficult for autistic people. They’re fine getting on with tasks in their own way and time, but then socialising, whilst often enjoyable and desired, uses up lots of extra energy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downtime or alone time in the villa and this would be necessary to recharge batteries. It’s also a setting which is ALL about talking about relationships, feelings, emotions and trying to read the signals of others. Do-able, but flipping heck, hard work for anybody.
- Lack of control. Autistic people experience the world as very intense. They don’t all have rigid routines and can enjoy spontaneity BUT you’d need to have some sense of control over your environment, down to things like where you slept and who with. It would be good to know what was going to happen on a daily basis and when to some extent. The world of Love Island is at the whims of producers who can suddenly introduce twelve new housemates or a jaunt out to that car park or get you to go into the hut and spill your guts. I’ve noticed that some reality shows do have very structured environments and routines which can be great for neurodiverse people (I suspect ones like Fame Academy/Strictly/Splash etc where you’re learning a skill and then have to perform at a certain time can be quite good) but there would be a constant high stress load around the not-knowing.
That is not to mention any additional mental health or low self-esteem issues which can go alongside autism when you’ve spent your life recognising that you don’t quite fit and trying to work out the rules that other people seem to know instinctively.
In future, I’d think an autistic contestant on Love Island would need at the very least, their own room where they could have as much time as they needed to relax, recover, decompress from sensory and social overload and reenter the fray in order to shine to the full as the very splendid “rainbow fish” they are. Hopefully they would also have had chance beforehand to get to know and accept their true selves and their needs, with the help of other people who understand, accept and support them. Self-Love Island, if you will…