It is a part of the lives of many families. Whether that is having a child with autism, a partner, family member, friend or colleague. You may have autism yourself. People with autism have many positive qualities and given the right opportunities, the environment and support they offer a lot to society. Some of our most inspirational people have, or are thought to have had autism, and many of these have had an impact on the world we live in. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and more recently Chris Packham and Temple Grandin are all such people.
West Berkshire Council's Autism Partnership Board completed a survey of adults with autism living in West Berkshire. The results of the survey will enhance the council's ability to understand and respond to the needs of adults with autism. Some of the findings from the survey indicate that adults with autism feel that building awareness of autism should be a high priority for West Berkshire.
The 'Autism Alert Card' has been developed by the charity Autism Berkshire for people with autism to carry, to enable them to quickly and simply communicate that they have autism. For more details look on the Autism Berkshire website
This card can be carried at all times and can be displayed if the people on the spectrum find themselves in a situation where they cannot easily give an explanation about their condition.
Another key aspect of adult life the survey highlighted as an area to improve is employment. The responses to the survey indicated that adults with autism often experience difficulties in the interview process. Further to this, maintaining a job can be challenging for adults with autism. However, given time and understanding from the employer and the employee the working relationship can develop successfully - with the employer seeing the talent and skills the employee with autism can offer. One suggestion to support the development of a successful relationship was to offer trial periods, giving the opportunity for employer and employee to get to know each other.
What is autism?
Many of us are aware of autism and may know someone with autism. However, do we understand it? Do we know how to celebrate the talent a person with autism has? Do we know how to help, if help is needed? Autism is a lifelong, developmental condition that affects the way the brain processes information. Autism impacts on the way a person relates to people and how they perceive the world around them. Autism is a disability.
"Without understanding, autistic people and families are at risk of being isolated and developing mental health problems." Source: National Autistic Society
What does autism look like and how can we help?
Autism is a hidden disability, it is not always easy to notice if someone has autism. It can be too easy to make judgements that are unfair because of a lack of understanding. If we are aware of the characteristics of autism we can understand and help. People with autism have difficulties in three main areas, these are known as the 'triad of impairments'. These are social interaction, social communication and social imagination.
A person with autism may find everyday social activities difficult. Knowing how to make friends, relating to others, and understanding the social 'rules' in life can be challenging. All this can cause isolation, stress and anxiety for the person with autism who may want to be social, but does not know how to join in or start a conversation. Crowds and large gathering are often difficult for a person with autism who may want to watch the football match, but cannot because of their anxiety and the amount of processing the brain needs to do in such a busy and noisy environment.
To help with social interaction we can be supportive by being aware that a person with autism may find being in company difficult. Don't be offended if an invitation is declined, or if when in company a person with autism does not give direct eye contact. A person with autism may not choose to contribute much when in company, but that does not mean they are not enjoying being part of the group.
A person with autism may find everyday social communication difficult. Social chit chat may not come easily, so they may stand and listen, rather than join in. A person with autism can sometimes make comments that are quite direct or sound rude or insensitive. At times a person with autism may take what you say literally, so by saying 'give me a minute' - you might find the person with autism expects you to mean exactly that, not a second less, not a second more. Sometimes it can be difficult for a person with autism to understand other people's emotions and indeed can struggle to understand their own emotions. Reading body language is hugely problematic. At times they find it hard to know how and when to react, although people with autism do have empathy.
To help with social communication we can be supportive in many ways, for example by showing objects, photos or writing down what you are talking about. This can make it easier to process and understand what is being discussed. Gain the attention of the person first of all, it may be helpful to keep your language easy to understand, to the point and not overloaded with too many words. Sometimes asking a direct question can help them understand what you are asking about. Give them time to process what you have said, it can take longer for the person with autism to offer a reply. Some people with autism have special interests, these can be good subjects to talk about. They may like to speak about these interests in great detail and may be unaware how long they have been talking for - don't be worried about interjecting to move the conversation forward.
A person with autism may find everyday social imagination difficult. Some people with autism may have wonderful imaginations and create great pieces or art, music or written work, especially if this is part of their special interest. However, many can find it difficult at times to imagine or predict what might happen, visualise a certain place, situation or how something may look or feel like. This can be frightening and cause anxiety leading to them preferring to avoid many situations, especially new ones. Adults with autism often prefer routine and structure, although life isn't always that predictable so change can cause them to become more anxious.
To help with social imagination we can be supportive by helping the person with autism know what, where and when something is happening. Doing this ahead of time, thinking and planning ahead can alleviate any possible distress, so writing things down and talking things though beforehand is a really good idea. Using email to share the details of what is happening is one way to do this. Use the email to share what, where and when, and also things to take, what to expect. This can all help reduce anxiety. Do remember to introduce some flexibility into the message - so say you will meet between 5pm and 5.15pm - rather than at 5pm. If you say 'meet at 5pm' then the person with autism will probably expect you on the dot!
Embrace autism because.....
Autism is positive, often autistic people have a wonderful eye for detail, are very honest and totally reliable. They can be very good at sticking to the rules, staying focused and finishing projects to a high standard. They have a great deal to offer society, however sometimes society makes it difficult for them to engage and contribute. Autism is everywhere, some people with autism are more complex than others, every person with autism is different, and will need different levels and type of support.
This article gives a glimpse into the world of Autism and attempts to show how and why we in West Berkshire can and should embrace people with autism. The right support at the right time can make an enormous difference to peoples' lives and ultimately the community in which we all live.
Embrace autism in adults and young people because we need to recognise the strengths of autistic people whilst also making our community more inclusive.