World Autism Awareness Day was set up by the United Nations in 2007. It takes place on April 2nd each year with the aim of helping people right across the globe to better understand the condition and how it affects the people who live with it. In recent years, the National Autistic Society has expanded this to a week-long event in the UK to include fund-raising activities for schools and employers.
So what is autism? If you’ve come to this page, chances are you’ve at least heard of it though you may be looking to find out more. It’s a very complex condition but experts agree that it’s a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties with:
- Social communication
- Repetitive behaviour
- Sensitivity to light
- Smell or touch
- Focused interests
- Emotional outbursts
However, because it’s a spectrum, there can be a huge variation in how autistic people behave.
People With ASD are Individuals
“Everyone is different,” says specialist tutor Elaine. “Some people have learning disabilities and may be non-verbal while with other people, you wouldn’t even know they had autism. I’ve worked with autistic teenage boys, for example, whose behaviour could easily have been seen as adolescent rudeness when they were just being straightforward and looking for clarity.”
Many autistic traits – such as the above ‘no-filter’ approach – can actually be strengths, she continues. “The very specific and focused interests of some people with ASD could be a real plus-point in the workplace. Employers could capitalise on it. Imagine, for example, someone who was obsessed with trains. Think what they could tell you about routes, timetables and so forth. In fact, think of all the people throughout history who probably had autism but weren’t diagnosed,” she speculates. “Some of them invented lots of wonderful things.”
Hope for the Future
Even so, Elaine believes it’s crucial that families and teachers have realistic – but positive -expectations of what a young person with autism might achieve. “Don’t view a child’s diagnosis as a problem. We all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to be calm and to have faith that the kids will be OK,” she advises. “Once a child is in their early teens, it’s also useful to plan ahead. Start working on their social skills and noticing things they might be interested in for when they leave school.”
Many people with ASD, Elaine maintains, are seen as ‘difficult’ or angry when they are actually very reasonable if people make an effort to understand their needs and triggers. “If something goes wrong and a meltdown occurs, parents and teachers should reflect without judgement and talk to the child about what happened and what they might do differently next time.”
Autistic People Can be Inspirational
James – a trained SENCO – says he’s been inspired by working with youngsters with autism. “People with autism tend to like routine and are upset by unexpected changes – but we would feel just the same if, for example, our train to work was cancelled. People with autism have a good sense of humour, too,” he adds, “and the attention to detail some people have is astonishing.
It’s important, he emphasises, to provide a calm and predictable learning environment for autistic students, taking their sensory needs into account. If a person is susceptible to being visually overstimulated, for example, then a blank classroom wall is more peaceful than one with lots of posters. Likewise, someone who is sensitive to noise could be encouraged to wear ear-defenders.
It also helps, James continues, to acknowledge that autistic students learn at their own speed. “One boy I worked with would always run off when we went out in public,” he explains. “I constantly reinforced the safety message with explanations and visual prompts and, after eight months, he finally learned to walk side-by-side. It took a long time but that’s still an achievement!”
Life skills – such as walking safely to the park or shops, travelling on public transport, cooking or even tying your own shoelaces – are just as important as classroom learning for autistic youngsters, he adds.
James advises worried parents to find support for coping with their son or daughter’s autism. “Don’t over-analyse your child or you’ll become anxious yourself,” he comments. “Reach out to professionals or other parents. There’s always hope.”
Elaine agrees that it can take time for families to accept that the future they’d planned for their child might evolve in a different way. “But people with autism can definitely have meaningful relationships and conversations and find purpose in life.”