What do you know about autism? Perhaps you've heard that it's some kind of brain condition that is linked to genius. Maybe you have a vague notion that it's caused by childhood immunisations, or affects children not adults, boys not girls. Maybe you've read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and therefore know everything there is to know.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so I can't help but give the topic some attention, especially as the Action and Research Centre here at the RSA is in the early stages of planning a piece of work involving improving opportunities for people with autism.
It feels timely to mention our intention to do this work, not least because of the emphasis in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's message to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2013: "This international attention is essential to address stigma, lack of awareness and inadequate support structures. Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential".
Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential
A few facts, then. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability - on its own, it isn't a learning disability or mental health condition, although some people with autism might also be affected by these. Autism is characterised by a 'triad of impairments', which refers to difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Importantly, it's a spectrum condition, which means that the way the three types of impairment affect people varies, and rather than being a single fixed condition, it encompasses many different subgroups of experience.
There's a lot that is still not known about autism - how it is caused, whether 'cure' is possible. There's also a lot of controversy surrounding how these unknowns should be approached, including a growing movement that advocates for celebrating difference instead of looking for a cure. It can all get quite divisive, especially between parents who passionately believe, for example in behavioural modification therapies and those who prefer to find ways of accommodating autistic self-expression.
Until a few years ago, I didn't know all that much about autism, and I certainly still wouldn't profess to have much in the way of knowledge about it. But, I do have a bit of experience, as a result of having had the privilege of being an occasional support worker for children and young people with autism.
Through the independent support agency, Time Specialist Support, I've got to know a number of young people with autism and, for fear of descending into cliche, have learnt a huge amount as a result. Many of the important lessons haven't been about the 'problem of autism' so much as the problems created by our social world and the norms we work within. Considering these things from the perspective of a child with autism throws up a gamut of frustrating and bewildering challenges, but when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity.
when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity
Only 15% of adults with autism have a job, although most are able and would like to work. The challenges involved in getting and doing a job are massive, but not necessarily because of the autism itself so much as the structures we take for granted as being integral and neccessary. It's these challenges, and how employers can help diminish them that we're interested in finding out more about at the RSA. It's very early days, but, the Enterprise team and Social Brain Centre intend to collaborate to examine the processes of change that might need to happen in order to properly support adults with autism to work.
We are currently in early discussions with organisations interested in creating more autism-friendly work places, and helping autistic people realise their employment potential, to address the rather shocking unemployment statistics among this group. One of the options we are exploring is to run a challenge prize on this subject, combining a mixture of specialist expertise, entrepreneurial business models, design and technology.
There are a few examples of trailblazers in this area, but there are also plenty of disappointing and tokenistic attempts to employ autistic adults. As we develop our ideas and plans, we would very much welcome anecdotes, examples, comments and suggestions, so do get in touch with me or Julian Thompson.