Thursday, 17 January 2013

Autism - making the most of a disABILITY

Recently, Louis Theroux explored the lives of children with Autism and their families in a documentary called 'Extreme Love'. It was most recently aired on ABC2 on Sunday 13 January.

One of the best scenes in the documentary (in my opinion) involves Louis asking a family whether they would take away their son's autism if they could. They said no because some of his quirks related to his condition made him lovable, fun and interesting to be around. According to his mother, none of her other children could make her laugh or make her think about things the way he could.

This child was very high functioning and, understandably, the answer was quite different for those families whose child/ren were low functioning or difficult to manage.

A diagnosis of Autism is very difficult for a family to deal with, and many parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) fear for what the future holds. It's called a 'spectrum' because children can have vastly different symptoms and levels of skills. Some typical symptoms involve difficulties with peer and social relationships, language difficulties, rituals, obsessions and difficulties dealing with their emotions and with change.

They also tend to enjoy certain repetitive tasks that other people may find tedious, such as data entry or quality control. As recently reported in the online version of the New York Times, Thorkil Sonne, whose son Lars has high functioning Autism, and like many of his peers, some highly specialised skills, decided to capitalise on those skills by starting a company Specialisterne (Danish for the specialists). Specialisterne employs high-functioning adults with ASD. It currently employs 35 workers and has inspired a number of similar organisations world-wide.

While many children struggle with even the most basic tasks, others have amazing abilities. For instance, some children with ASD can perform complex mental calculations, memorise dates, or have a large store of knowledge about certain topics they are interested in (recall Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rainman).

The organisation is based on the “dandelion model”: when dandelions pop up in a lawn, we call them weeds, but the spring greens can also make a tasty salad. A similar thing can be said of autistic people — that apparent weaknesses (bluntness and obsessiveness, say) can also be marketable strengths (directness, attention to detail).

The organisation now has offices in Iceland, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland and the USA. The transformation that occurs in the lives of individuals with Autism, their families and the greater social and economic good created by initiatives such as this is awe-inspiring. One consultant, Christian, had a history of being bullied at school, developing suicidal tendencies, attempting vocational training but being overwhelmed by the course, becoming depressed and having a breakdown, then being unemployed and living at his parents' house without prospects. Now thanks to Specialisterne he lives independently, feels confident, loves his job and has learned to adopt some behaviours that make him more socially accepted.

The concept is not without its challenges, however. Despite their prized skills, some workers with ASD encounter difficulties in the workplace because of their limited social skills and difficulty reading other people's emotions. Specialisterne mitigates these issues by assigning their employees a 'neurotypical' coach who checks in with them regularly, monitors their well-being and gives them guidance and advice about social interactions.

While this is a complex undertaking, we hope that more organisations are motivated to consider employing individuals with ASD in their workplace - and not only to employ them, but find positions where they are likely to be one of the best people for the job.

The first step is to build people's awareness of ASD and the positive aspects of this condition.

If you would like to learn more about autism and about what assessments and training programs are available for people with ASD, please contact us at ANTS.

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