By Susan Forrest, SCLD Learning & Development Manager
It is very difficult to talk about autism without some quotes or clichés slipping into the conversation. One often heard is, “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. Well, it is a spectrum disorder, and everyone is an individual whether they have autism or not.
I always seem to end up telling delegates on any training course I deliver that I believe we all have autism-like characteristics. Think about the things you like to do, the routines you stick to, the subjects you like to talk about. And who really likes too much change, especially if it’s sudden and unplanned ?
When I facilitate the Introduction to Autism courses for SCLD, I find that practitioners from all types of organisations are nervous about working with people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They tell me they don’t know anything about autism, or that they are scared of doing something wrong, or making a situation worse.
They seem to forget that many of the skills they use every day will have a positive impact on someone with ASD just as they do with an individual with a learning disability, sensory impairment or dementia.
Take communication for example, one of the Triad of Impairments (the three main areas of difficulty which all people with autism share, as first described by Lorna Wing). I advise practitioners to speak slowly, and clearly to individuals with a communication impairment, presenting one idea at a time and giving the person time to process the information.
However this is not exclusive to ASD practice – I would give the same advice to anyone working with people who need time to take in spoken communication and absorb what is being said. Equally, when working with young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties, it is well documented that trying to communicate verbally with someone who is angry and upset is nigh on impossible and that you should say as little as possible until the person has calmed down.
Temple Grandin, famous as much for being a Professor of Animal Science as she is for being on the autistic spectrum, often commented that she had difficulty picking up social cues, but also in knowing what to do when she did something wrong. Think of all the social skills you have and then try and remember where you learned them. Some of them might have come from your parents and other family members, but mostly we just pick up the rules as we go along. Someone on the spectrum may not have this skill naturally, and so can feel constantly anxious that they are going to make a mistake.
This heightened anxiety level explains why for so many people with ASD, the social world becomes just too uncomfortable, and it becomes easier to avoid certain situations rather than risk doing something which causes distress, either to self or others. So, I would be delighted to see you on one of SCLDs Introduction to Autism courses but before you even arrive in the training room, there are some things you can do.
Firstly, as a member of the social or healthcare workforce, you will already have skills and knowledge which will benefit people on the autistic spectrum so don’t be afraid to use them. Secondly, you can assist greatly by simply empathising with what someone might be experiencing and supporting them accordingly. Can you remember an occasion where you were nervous about doing something new and no-one had really explained to you what was happening ? Well imagine how it must feel for someone who experiences that level of apprehension every day, and try to put yourself in their place even just for a moment.
Finally, you will hear clichés and myths about autism all the time but do not fall into the trap of assuming everyone one the spectrum will respond to the same interventions in the same way. Many people with ASD can make eye contact, form loving relationships, cope with loud music, thrive in mainstream education – others have difficulties with these. Relationship building which avoids assumptions and focuses on the strengths of individuals is as important for someone with an ASD as it is for anyone.
April is National Autism Awareness month, so let’s all keep autism on the agenda. And if you would like to know more about the theory and practice around the Autistic Spectrum, contact John Somerville at firstname.lastname@example.org for details of our Introduction to Autism one day course.