Friday, April 03, 2009

Make yourself aware of autism

These days there seems to be a day for everything. If it isn't World Sleep Day (dreamed up by a marketing department somewhere) then it's World Maths Day (calculated to send everyone to sleep, even if Bed Day doesn't). And it's all too easy to scoff and be cynical.

But Thursday, April 2, 2009 is (or was) World Autism Awareness Day, and if there's one thing that's worth taking seriously, this is it.

Mention autism to anyone who doesn't live with its effects and a common reaction is "Rain Man". And Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of a man with a genius for numbers but with no emotional or social skills was a truly remarkable performance. But it only showed an aspect of the broader truth.

According to the National Autistic Society, people with autism struggle to make sense of the world and the social rules and conventions which other people take for granted. They see the world as a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can make them feel stressed or anxious.

In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life, may be hard for them.

Everyone with autism shares what's sometimes called the "triad of impairments": difficulty with social communication, social interaction social imagination.

But people with autism do not "look" disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is badly behaved. And as a child with autism grows into an adult with autism – because autism is for life – they may find themselves at best understood, at worse considered "weird" and bullied.

So what characterises someone with autism? They may find it hard to cope with change, and may well adopt routines and set patterns in their lives in an effort to stay within a non-changing comfort zone.

They may be over-sensitive to sensory impressions, which can lead to them being frightened by loud noises or bright lights.

Or they may be under-sensitive to these impressions, and may not even give the appearance of feeling pain. Alternatively, they may feel pain and just not want the interpersonal stress of being comforted. They may try to stimulate their senses or relieve stress by flapping their hands or rocking their bodies.

They may be especially interested in one particular field – art, music, trains or computers for instance. And they may be absolutely brilliant within their chosen field.

They may have learning difficulties and need extra help at school.

They can be all of those things, or some of them, or none of them. Sometimes autism is described as a spectrum, and people on it, just like "neurotypical" people, come in all shapes and sizes.

A private member's Autism Bill is currently at Committee stage in Parliament. The Government is in favour of a more general framework of support for disabled people which will cover people with autism.

But it's an uncomfortable fact that Government, local authorities and primary care trusts don't know how many adults with autism there are in England, and without this information they can't plan the services that are needed.

If you're a parent of or carer for someone with autism, a lot of this will be familiar to you already. If you're not, and would like to know more, Google "Autism Awareness Day" and make yourself aware.

The usual inconsequential whimsy returns next week.

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