In September this year, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference in Sydney, Australia. The conference was an opportunity for people with Autism, their families, and professionals working with the Autistic community to come together and share their experiences, knowledge and research to better understand Autism. The theme of the conference was ‘Growing with Autism,’ an acknowledgement of the shift from viewing Autism as a disorder of childhood to a lifelong condition that requires understanding, acceptance and support from infancy to old age.
What made the conference this year so special, was the number of Autistic teens and adults that had made themselves available to talk about their experiences about life on the spectrum, the diagnostic process, and their hopes for the future. Hearing first-hand accounts of the challenges individuals with Autism have faced, what they have achieved and what they want the neurotypical world to know about them was enlightening, educational and encouraging for me both as a Psychologist and as a parent.
And what was the most important message I took away from the conference? While there were many valuable lessons that I will use both in my professional and personal life, the message that had the most impact was one given by Dr Stephen Shore, a professor, author, Autism advocate and Autistic adult who spoke about helping individuals with Autism use their strengths to achieve a fulfilling and productive life. One of the ways we can do this, he said, is to focus less on doing things to Autism and focus more on working with Autism.
The example Dr Shore gave was one of supporting a child in the classroom. It may be an effective strategy to use the child’s special interest as a reward for completing other work, allowing them to play with some toy airplanes after doing a piece of writing or a maths sheet. This is doing something to the child’s Autism. While this strategy is a perfectly acceptable way of encouraging a child to complete an activity, working with their Autism may be more effective. This could be done by incorporating the child’s love of planes into the task itself, encouraging the child to write about their favourite plane or counting or measuring parts of a plane for their maths activity.
I think this is such an important distinction, not only for how we think about supporting Autistic children and adults at school and work, but also for understanding and accepting Autism itself. While there are many skills that are important for Autistic individuals to develop to allow them to function and flourish in a neurotypical world, it is also important to support individuals to embrace their Autism rather than try and make them less Autistic so they fit in.
Dr Shore’s message is a simple one, but one that can make a positive change to the way we think about Autism, and in turn can make a difference to members of the Autism community and their hopes for the future.