Donna Williams (Polly Samuel) was a remarkable, empathic and humble person that I have had the fortune to know, diagnosed with childhood psychosis in 1965 at age 2, a victim of poverty, trauma, physical and sexual abuse in her infancy and adulthood.
She lived with visual perceptual disorders, verbal agnosias, body agnosias, auto-immune challenges, elhers danlos syndrome and dissociative identity disorder.
In later life she was diagnosed with breast cancer and sadly passed away in 2017.
Her work has helped, aided and empowered many people over the years of her conferences, lectures and books both autobiographical and informational in content throughout the early days of autism advocacy.
Polly was highly intuitive, person centred and accommodating to people’s needs refusing to adhere to the “identity” politics (seeing autism as the centre of selfhood which respectfully isn’t) and the lack of objectivity within the extreme narratives, she challenged the use of the word “neurotypical” its use and the inaccuracies around the word and its inaccurate meaning.
Other work included the use of tinted lenses and how they aided with processing incoming information, visual perception, faceblindness, simultagnosia and semantic agnosia, language processing in which a person is meaning deaf and not literal, advocating for people whom are functionally non-verbal who use assisted communication, advocating for people who had exposure anxiety who find the directly confrontational world oppressive and challenging, advocating for people with dietary disabilities, metabolic, gut and immune disorders.
I first met Polly at an event in Headington (near the city of Oxford) in 2009 with my Father during the interval, I went up to her to ask how she created her artwork she then said after saying I am potentially on the autism spectrum she said “oh yes you are really sensitive and so is your Father.”
We connected on social media and she helped me greatly with understanding my autism profile, the politics of autism and helping me through challenging times when I felt no one was listening to be me.
Polly encouraged me to not fall into the trap of seeing “autism as everything about you” and warned me about the militancy and backlash I would get for not towing the line in the confirmation bias narratives.
Over the past five years since her passing I have tried my best to inform people of her “autism fruit salad analogy” in which you look at the different pieces specifically to the person and thus see the person first – merging the medical/social model of disability to create the empowerment model.
She had an infectious laugh and a zest for life and humanity and that is what I value from her is that she saw me (as others) as not simply “autistic” but human beings in their own right.
I loved her artwork and poetry it always seemed to speak a thousand words.
I miss you Polly I think I always will. x
Paul Isaacs 2022