We need more than diagnosis and training for neurotypicals to improve lives of autistic people

I was truly heartened by the recent Spring Conference debate on support for autistic people. Progress has been made on diagnosis and awareness since the Autism Act. I want to argue, however, that autistic people need tailored support to help them thrive in the real world, not just a speedy diagnosis and societal awareness – those don’t pay the bills.

My personal experience shows the need for action at a political level to ensure that tailored support is provided for those on the autistic spectrum.

My son was diagnosed, thanks to persistent health visitors, at the age of three. He went to mainstream schools with learning support in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and an FE college. Secondary school was a disaster with terrible bullying and FE college difficult, with some bullying. All the educational establishments tried their best and kept a dialogue with me. It helped that I was an Independent Parental Supporter from 2003-8, in an excellent IPS service ran by Oxfordshire County Council. I knew the ropes, but even that couldn’t ensure the best outcomes for my son.

The real failure of the authorities however has been after formal education. The Council’s Employment Support Team achieved little because the mentor took the ‘they must adapt to you’ approach which doesn’t work in real life. After two years of ‘support’ we had to set our son up as a self-employed gardener. He has a few loyal clients but would not be able to live independently and the future is a constant niggling worry at the back of our minds. An acquaintance is a prisoner in her own home because the local authority accepts that her sons don’t want to go out, let alone live independently, again I dread to think what her fears for the future are.

I think the NHS or local authority should offer social skills training to help autistic people to cope with the demands of the real world, rather than offering nothing until someone has reached mental breakdown. Even then the psychological support offered can be detrimental because MH professionals have not been taught the psychology of autism. CBT, Ritalin and anti-anxiety drugs for instance, can have the opposite effect on the autistic mind.

A few years back there was a tv programme following an autistic guy on a work trial at the British Library in Boston Spa where all the nerdy stuff like cataloguing (and I am allowed to say that because I had a career in several such jobs and love classification and cataloguing) takes place. The programme makers expected the guy to be offered a job at the end, he wasn’t, need I say more?

Please can we demand more support for ASD adults to reach their full potential, not just diagnosis and awareness. Not all end up with a nice job in STEM or academia, and more could if the right support was there, judging by the ‘chat’ at the debate at the Spring Conference!

* Catherine Dawson is a Lib Dem member from Devizes.

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One Comment

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Apr '21 - 8:51am

    Catherine, I am so sorry to hear about the difficulties your son has experienced, during education and while seeking work.
    I do feel that your son’s mentor was right in considering that it is the responsibility of an employer to adapt to the needs of an autistic person, rather than expecting the autistic person to adapt. You say that societal awareness is not enough. But lack of awareness by neurotypicals is the main barrier preventing autistic people from getting jobs that they could do just as well as – or in many cases better than – neurotypicals.
    Sadly, employers often favour extrovert candidates with good “social skills”, even if these sort of skills are not relevant to the job. This is clearly discrimination.
    You suggest that autistic young people should be given “social skills training”. But we do need to be careful not to try to force autistic people to behave like neurotypicals – why should they? Some training in how to deal with specific situations such as job interviews would be useful. But it would be more valuable to give training to employers in how to conduct interviews in a way they does not discriminate against autistic people.

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