Opinion Piece: A is for Autism

Opinion piece from Stuart Jacob which appeared in The Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News, Thursday 2nd April.

April is Autism Awareness Month, with World Autism Awareness Day falling today. This sees campaigners globally try to raise further awareness of the condition.

Although clinicians first began to formally identify children in the early 1940’s, who would today be on the autism spectrum, there is still a great lack of understanding about autism and its effects. And it is this lack of knowledge that the awareness campaign aims to highlight.

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way in which a person communicates, interacts and processes information. The behaviours and challenges typically associated with autism are often a result of these differences in thinking styles and perceptions. This can be seen in the following three ways; social interaction, social communication and social imagination and flexible thinking.

For example, individuals on the autism spectrum may have difficulty understanding and responding to the perspectives of others. As a result they may find it difficult to form and sustain relationships. Another issue can be anticipating the social expectations in any given situation. Social rules can often  be difficult to retain and implement for people who suffer from autism, due to the different way in which their brains work. Difficulties in predictive thinking can also impact on an individual’s ability to organise themselves and fully understand the consequences of their actions. It also makes it more difficult to accommodate change.

Some people will have more subtle difficulties while others will have complex needs requiring more intensive support. It is estimated that around 1 in 100 people are on the spectrum.

While a precise cause for autism has not been established it is widely recognised that there are a number of biological factors involved which can impact on brain development. Environmental factors are also thought to play a role.

When it comes to a knowledge and understanding of autism there still remains a lot to be learned. More research is being carried out which will hopefully allow for earlier identification of the condition and timely interventions to support young people with autism.

We have however come a long way in supporting those young people with the condition, including the autism toolbox for schools, which includes up-to-date information from research and practical experience that is easy to understand and apply in the classroom, playground and home. In addition there have been some fantastic recent initiatives providing relaxed cinema and theatre performances. However, work still needs to be done to improve attitudes and understanding regarding people with autism, for example in increasing opportunities for employment.

Stuart Jacob