Being someone who’s had a little bit of free time over the last few weeks, I decided to Google the word "Autism". From both my personal and professional life, I have found that the word Autism is one that can have many meanings, implications, thoughts and feelings attached to it. With it, it often brings stereotypes or assumptions and it’s very easy to make these assumptions about people with Autism. Sheldon from the TV program the Big Bang Theory often comes into my mind - the high levels of intelligence, being meticulous about their habits and surroundings, the constant need for routine and no room for change and other slightly infuriating stereotypes.
Admittedly, from my own experiences, some of these can be true, however I feel that there is so much more to it than just having to wear the same pair of socks on a set day of the week! The National Autistic Society agrees with me. “Everyone is a bit autistic" – myth. While everyone might recognise some autistic traits or behaviours in people they know, to be diagnosed with autism, a person must consistently display behaviours across all the different areas of the condition. Just having a fondness for routines, a good memory or being shy doesn’t make a person 'a bit autistic'.”
My Google search, to my total lack of surprise, brought up millions of searches. The first result was a definition; “Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” Although this definition came from an American website (I’m going to assume this is the reason for the slightly insane spelling of “behaviours”!) I feel that it’s a pretty good summary.
One result that popped up very regularly were the many websites or options were for providing support. Autism specialist charities, therapy or counselling, medications, and general offers of support that there are for those who are either new to a diagnosis or have had their diagnosis for years but are simply looking to get through their daily lives with fewer challenges.
There are also so many families with children with Autism who have made the courageous decision to start recording their own journeys. I found many YouTube channels containing videos of their daily challenges and triumphs, blogs with the good and the bad, and offering words of encouragement, support and advice. Accounts like these help to ensure there isn’t a feeling of isolation or seclusion, instead provididng connection with other families who are in a similar position to themselves.
I wanted to find out how much these support systems ring true and if there are genuinely good support systems in place, so I explored a little closer to home; my husband, T. My wonderful, loving husband who, at the age of 27, is only now in the process of being given an official diagnosis of Autism. My husband and I met 4 years ago, whilst we were travelling, and it took me all of 4 days, before I quite openly said to him “has anyone ever mentioned to you that you have a lot of Autistic traits? Also, you definitely have ADHD!” Turns out, I was right- never being one to blow my own horn of course! He asked his GP for a referral to mental health services, and for all the many blessings of the NHS, we had a long wait ahead of us. But we met a wonderful adult psychologist, who provided T with an ADHD diagnosis almost immediately, and referred him onto further specialists for his Autism. We are still waiting for that “official” piece of paper that says, "Congratulations, You Have Autism!", but all his screenings tests so far have given us and his doctors and psychologists a good indication of what’s ahead and all agree that T falls onto the spectrum.
This led me to think; if T is only now receiving his diagnosis, how this must have affected him in earlier life, particularly whilst he was at school. Was he given enough support, if any? Did this affect his views on education and school in general? The answer? He had a pretty hard time. T openly admits he struggled in school and wishes that there had been more awareness of behavioural disorders whilst he was there. Having since been given means of support following his diagnosis, for the majority, T can deal with his behaviours in a much more manageable way. But reflecting on education, he agrees that he can’t say for certain if he’d have had his diagnosis whilst at school, it would have been a better experience for him, however it does make cause for wonder.
I like to think, perhaps slightly naively, that the awareness of Autism, particularly within mainstream education, is on the up. A study by DFE in 2014 has shown that there has been a three percent increase in Autism being listed as the primary need in children’s EHCP or statements in mainstream primary schools since 2010. The DFE were also able to conclude that over 11% of children in mainstream school who have additional needs have a diagnosis of autism.
These high levels of children with additional needs in primary schools has led to an increase in needing more teaching assistants and support staff- a 2016 by the DFE found that there were 263,000 FTE teaching assistants and 232,000 FTE support staff. Unfortunately, due to the current economic climate, it is getting more and more difficult for schools to justify having teaching assistants and support staff working with them, unless they are being given the funding by the government for 1:1 support staff. So, with many schools feeling financial pressures more than ever, we need to ensure that the teaching assistants who are going into schools, either SEN or mainstream, are willing to involve themselves in all aspects of educating children with additional needs. Not only be willing to support them, but to gain an understanding of their unique needs and differences and assist them through difficult transitions such as a change in routine throughout their time in education.
What I do know with absolute certainty is that my husband is far more than a few behavioural disorder diagnoses! I will strive to ensure that stereotypes of Autism are broken down; through promoting awareness, providing professional development training for members of staff working in both mainstream and SEN schools and generally assuring that positive aspects are regularly highlighted, and the focus doesn’t just always sit with the negative. Please don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the challenges that can occur, for that person and their loved ones, but I would like to think, one step at a time, we can make the world a more Autism friendly place. Oh, and I can assure you, T certainly isn’t bothered about matching socks on any day of the week!
So, my point being, after this slight waffle and many tangents, all of this highlights the importance of Autism awareness, particularly in schools. For me, it particularly stresses the importance of being able to provide SEN schools with staff who can provide their students with the correct support. Staff who are going to understand their students for who they are, their unique differences, the challenges they face and finding ways to help them overcome barriers; helping to conquer what can be a very daunting world and make their transitions as smooth as possible.
It is one of the reasons I enjoy my job so much- I get to meet and employ people who are wanting to make these differences to children and young people’s lives.