The Adults With Autism Who Take Their Soft Toys To Work
Most of us have a favourite soft toy from childhood. A silent ally who over time becomes sidelined and left on a shelf. But for some adults they remain an essential presence never leaving the side of their owner.
“Most people know me as Jamie + Lion. It’s really not a big deal,” says Jamie Knight, a 27-year-old developer for the BBC who lives in London with Lion, a 4ft-long soft toy – sometimes known as a plushie – which never leaves his side.
“I’m autistic, which is a posh way of saying I have a different way of thinking and perceiving the world. For me the typical environment is pretty chaotic. A sudden loud announcement in a supermarket is pretty similar in effect to a flash-bang grenade used to confuse people during wars.
“My brain needs more structure than most. The more predictable the world is, the better chance I have of being able to process it.”
Jamie’s coping strategies include eating the same meal every night – filled pasta with sauce – and having Lion at his side, no matter where he goes.
“He is a toy, I’m not deluded into thinking he is alive,” he says.
Carrying an object around brings some structure and consistency to his environment. The toy lion has a familiar texture and smell which helps in those moments when he feels “overloaded”.
“Another way he helps is with deep pressure. My sense of shape is sometimes a bit floaty. I can lose the edge of my body and feel as though I am floating apart. Hugging Lion – I pull him into my chest – provides the input my body needs to stop the floating feeling.”
Prof Bruce Hood from the University of Bristol says the common childhood trait of needing a soft toy for comfort may be carried into adulthood, as Jamie has suggested, by those particularly attracted to routine.
“The reason children develop these relationships is still uncertain, but could arise from self-soothing or habitual routine formation with familiar objects. For example they have been shown to be useful to reduce the stress of attending the dentist.”
Most people “grow out of strong attachment” but “individuals with autism generally prefer structure and routines which may explain it,” he says.
Lion wasn’t always so visible. In the past Jamie tried to conform to some kind of “normal”. This wasn’t so successful so, instead of attempting to “defeat” his autism, he decided to work with it.
Lion mostly remained at home while Jamie was at secondary school but as he got older and demands changed, he needed more consistency. “During my college years he was always with me,” he says. “He was pretty popular.”
Jamie’s autism means at times he is non-verbal – unable to talk – although he can communicate using messaging services and apps which is how he spoke to me, with Lion sitting on his lap. He also knows enough sign language to “get by” which his friends have also learned so they can communicate together.
It means he will generally work from home, but when he does go out he says reaction to Lion is “minimal to nothing”.
“I think to everyone else it’s a much bigger deal than it is to me. In fact Lion has been really cool for my career rather accidentally. He’s really memorable, and that has helped people remember me.”
Lion also acts as a prop in situations Jamie finds uncomfortable, such as giving someone a hug, Lion can step in and hug them instead.
He says the toy has become part of his identity and that he’d lose something valuable if it weren’t there.
For actress and comedian Tilley Milburn her “lady pig” Del is someone she can rely on.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 20 she was living in a residential care home when she spotted the patchwork pig in a shop. It would become her best friend and collaborator, a character with its own voice who even pipes up in business meetings.
“Del is a soft toy, but she’s more than that to me. I’ve had toys that have come and gone. Del is the first soft toy that I’ve really given a personality and voice to.”
Growing up she had no more attachment to soft toys than most, but moving to a residential care home as a young adult left her isolated.
“I was quite withdrawn at the time, I was living in a care home and I was struggling to adjust in that environment, mainly because I just couldn’t go about freely – go for a walk.
“Del started off being a source of comfort and a way of communicating at times with the carers and even my mum.
“My mum always says that Del’s more reasonable than me, so she’ll ask to talk to Del.”
The duo work together visiting community groups, performing comedy shows, singing and collaborating on a comic strip, but Del doesn’t always talk.
“It’s not an addiction. I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession. Sometimes we can go through a whole meeting where Dell will hardly get a word in edgeways.”
Tilley says she has always felt slightly different to others and is aware of stares when she’s out, but sometimes having Del on her side helps her gain control of the situation.
“I’m a bit naughty because I complain about people staring at me and I get fed up with people pointing at me, sniggering. I think sometimes, ‘I’m going to give them something to look at,’ and get Del out.”
Using a soft toy as a proxy can be a way to navigate the sometimes alien world, but like their owners the toys’ personalities may develop or alter.
For Jamie, having Lion by his side is not necessarily a long-term fixture, but it works for now.
“Lion is changing over time, as am I. Maybe one day he might be with me less, maybe one day he won’t.”