GUEST COLUMN: More must be done to understand Autism, by counsellor Jason Hanson

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Autism is a very complex developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, also impacting how they make sense of and experience the world around them.

I use the word complex, because there are varying degrees, which puts it on a spectrum.

High-functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger’s syndrome are toward the top end of the scale.

The difference between these two is that those diagnosed with the latter tend not to experience language delay.

Towards the lower end of the scale is classic autism which is more likely to have an accompanying learning disability.

It is also worth noting that autism is something which is managed, not cured. Having said that people do see improvements and can live independent, fulfilling lives.

You could be forgiven for thinking that autism is a relatively new concept, especially as we still seem to misdiagnose it within the educational setting as merely disruptive children.

The word in its modern day meaning was first coined however in the early 1900s, with the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s back in 1981. Very literally it relates to ‘self’, perhaps focusing on the often introverted characteristics associated with an individual on the spectrum.

It is estimated around 1.1% of the UK are on the spectrum, which equates roughly to 700,000 people. If you consider that autism, does not just affect the individual, but also family members, carers, teachers etc. that figure rises dramatically and it becomes clear why we must raise the profile and promote a better understanding.

In 2011 some startling statistics were published, which stated that 17% of autistic children have been suspended from school; 48% of these had been suspended three or more times; 4% had been expelled from one or more schools.

With these statistics comes an argument that we do not have enough knowledge or understanding within our schools about autism and/or lack the appropriate skills to deal with it. A total of 34% of children highlighted they had been bullied at school because of their autism. Of course there is a requirement for a collaborative approach here. Parents have to be astute and look out for early signs in their children.

Clinicians must be able to make an early and accurate diagnosis; teachers need to be better trained on how to support and teach people on the spectrum; employers need an understanding of how to best accommodate any employees with autism.

Raising the profile of autism, promoting more understanding and patience will provide a more inclusive environment for those affected by the condition.

People on the spectrum already feel socially isolated and marginalised and each and every one of us has an obligation to support our most vulnerable in society.