by Phil Killen, Head of Services - Children's Services, Safe As Houses
Whether you work as a health or social care professional, or you’re a member of the public, we all need to care and think more about how we communicate with those among us that differ from what is traditionally considered ‘normal’. Often, when we speak to somebody that is autistic we are unsure of how to talk to them or worry about saying the wrong thing. This happens a lot to people that perceive and interact differently with the world, especially those children and adults on the autistic spectrum. I have written this piece to share my knowledge and experience working and interacting with autistic individuals, and to help raise awareness and establish a better understanding of autism and ‘neurodiversity’.
What Autism can Look Like in a Child
To begin with, I want you to imagine a baby boy named Joseph. He was born a what is considered ‘normal’ child. As he reached the age of two, he suddenly stopped talking until he was four years old. This may seem curious at first, but this happens to many children in the United Kingdom before they are diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and thus being neurodivergent. Until these children are assessed and diagnosed by a professional, parents and/or siblings often don’t fully understand why they don’t speak or act in a traditional way that is considered ‘normal’. Even after a diagnosis has been given, there are still many questions and uncertainty surrounding the support for the child and the parents. The main thing to know is that people with autism are just like you and I, they simply think and interact with the world in a different way.
Autism isn’t Always Obvious
Anyone we meet could be autistic. It is not necessarily something that presents itself in any physical way. Autistic children like Joseph often begin facing challenges after their diagnosis or even prior to it. This usually happens around middle school where most autistic children struggle communicating with others and consequently face problems that result from being misunderstood. These challenges grow throughout adolescence and high school, as well as living within the family home. This goes to show just how important it is for us all to educate ourselves about autism and neurodiversity and how to communicate with neurodivergent individuals.
There is Still a Lot to Learn
To better interact and engage with autistic children and adults, we must gain a better understanding of them and what works and what doesn’t work on an individual basis. To begin with, autism is not just a one size fits all definition. It can present itself in various ways, usually characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviour’s, as well as speech and nonverbal communication.
High functioning in autism, especially in children, means that they can retain memory in school when they learn, but lack social and communication skills. Middle level, (PDD) in the autistic spectrum can be both high functioning and low functioning, however, it depends on the challenges that individuals have in their daily routines. This happens especially when among school-aged children who have difficulty maintaining their focus. Severe autism often presents the biggest challenge for the individual. 
Because those individuals with high functioning autism interact with the world differently, they This cohort of children are often treated differently from other students in their schools/educational facilities. often need to be met with more patience and flexibility from teaching and support assistants to complete their schoolwork. Though, things have improved a lot over the past decade, there still is a need for more communication and awareness training for professionals and families. This will go a long way increasing the level of engagement and acceptance professionals and families are willing to show to people with autism and their needs. It will also help increase self-esteem, motivation and potential outcomes in autistic children and adults.
This is also where autism-friendly living environments tailored to the individual’s needs come in. By recognising and addressing the challenges people with autism face in their day-today life, we can set autistic individuals up for success for living a bright and meaningful life.
It should neither be a taboo nor a stigma to have autism or any other form of neurodiversity. It is just another way of being as well as a different way of learning. Children and adults with autism are as capable and worthy of support as anyone else. We just need to be willing to learn and keep an open mind.
Let's take this opportunity to engage and learn more.