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The autistic lecturer

Ros Blackburn has devised a method to break out of autism's anti-social restrictions by switching into an acting mode when she wants to. Photo: Jason Borg.

Ros Blackburn has devised a method to break out of autism's anti-social restrictions by switching into an acting mode when she wants to. Photo: Jason Borg.

Life is often an act for Ros Blackburn who is constantly applying rules that help her make sense of the world around her and live in it.

When someone extends a hand - shake it, according to one rule. But if you are holding a packet of sweets and someone puts out a hand, give them one.

Don't leave your bag unattended in a place where there are many people you have never seen before. The same rule applies to a wallet or jacket... An endless string of such rules helps Ms Blackburn cope with autism.

While people usually learn social behaviour instinctively, Ms Blackburn has had to devise her own method.

"I learnt it all artificially. It's so rehearsed now that it's instilled," she says before adding: "I can only know what I am taught or told or shown".

Mr Blackburn explains that at 18 months old she was diagnosed as severely autistic but with average intellectual ability.

Fast forward a few decades and the remarkable English woman from Essex, now 40, lectures internationally to share her experiences with autism.

She talks about the coping strategies that helped her break through the anti-social barriers commonly associated with the developmental disorder. She manages to "fit in" when she needs to by applying an extensive set of rules.

"This is all an act. I'm in work mode now," she says in a composed manner during a brief interview at the airport after she gave a lecture in Malta organised by the Autism Parents' Association. So what would she be like if not in work mode?

"I'd either be rolling on the floor, making random noises and not bothering with this conversation. I would want to be trampolining and getting my needs met," she said.

She explained that she likes trampolining because it makes her feel free and excited. That was where she met her care worker Jenni Pizzuto, who at the time was a trampolining coach in the UK. Although autism has restricted her life, unlike many people with autism, she managed to overcome many of the problems thanks to her parents.

"They never accepted my autism as an excuse for bad behaviour.

"They always treated me like my brother and sister and provided me with a good education," she said.

"The soft approach does not work with autistic children. You need to be tough. It's a case of being cruel to be kind."

Although she is dyslexic, Ms Blackburn is gifted with a fluency in spoken language that allows her to clearly convey her thoughts and experiences.

This is one of the reasons she lectures educators, carers, families and people from the autism spectrum.

She has helped people understand the way an autistic person thinks - in a sort of illogical logic. For example, Ms Blackburn could not understand why it was acceptable for people speaking a foreign language to utter sounds that were completely unrecognisable to others and yet it was not acceptable if she uttered random noises.

"Autism is the inability to single out people as special, separate, unique entities - different from bits of furniture, different from even the family pet dog.

"The outside world is a totally baffling incomprehensible mayhem... It is a meaningless mass of sights and sounds, noises and movements coming from nowhere, going nowhere," she said.

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