Autism Awareness Week (30 March-5 April 2020) is an important opportunity to focus on how autistic people can live full and active lives, as well as the challenges faced by those who care for them.
Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. In the UK, there are approximately 700,000 people with Autism.
Living with Autism
My 13-year-old son has Autism, so I’ve had many years’ experience of caring for someone with Autism and learning about this disability, which can be very individual in how it manifests itself. Josh was initially diagnosed with ADHD, and when those symptoms were managed, we noticed other things coming out, which were the autistic traits. This includes challenges with his emotional intelligence; recognising what he’s feeling and how he portrays that, and reading other people’s body language.
There’s a lot of crossover between ADHD and Autism, with regard to sensory issues and sensory processing. Things are too loud or not loud enough. My son seeks movement, so Joe Wickes’s current daily PE lessons on YouTube at the moment are fantastic to get him going, because the sensory seeker for movement and fidgeting in Autism and ADHD is a great thing. That got him up and running this morning before he started his maths worksheet, so the physical aspect definitely helps him get focused.
Neurodiversity in industry
A few years ago, SAP launched its ground-breaking ‘Autism at Work’ programme. Operating in 13 countries and employing more than 160 employees with Autism, the company focuses on skills and strengths – all part of “embracing differences to help spark innovation while challenging assumptions and inspiring change.”
Among the benefits of employing people with Autism and raising awareness of it, SAP identified that team spirit improved tremendously and positively impacted the company’s culture. For employees themselves, they said increased confidence, social integration, financial stability and greater independence were some of the “life-changing” results of being welcomed and employed by SAP.
At Leonardo, where I co-chair our Carers' Network, we are extremely conscious of the need to talk about neurodiversity and how it affects our employees. I took up the role because of the experience I had in running support groups and volunteering in a supportive capacity, so I thought ‘why not bring that into work?’. As a result of my knowledge-sharing activities relating to various aspects of caring, colleagues have approached me on various things, including Autism and ADHD, looking for more information or guidance. I can’t tell people what to do, but I can share my personal experiences and provide signposting to the appropriate services.
Raising awareness more broadly
With SAP’s ‘Autism at Work’ providing much-need profile within business and industry, initiatives like the ‘Umbrella Project’ aim to broaden awareness of neurodiversity, including Autism and ADHD, amongst the general public.
Masterminded by the ADHD Foundation in 2017, the Umbrella Project creates art installations featuring dozens of multicoloured umbrellas to promote neurodiversity and to champion the talents, gifts and employability of those with ADHD, Autism and other neurological disorders. It focuses not on what a person’s limitation are, but on what ‘super powers’ they possess! It’s an incredibly powerful way of celebrating ability. The ‘umbrella’ term covers a range of differences in how people’s brains work and has become a positive and uplifting symbol of neurodiversity.
Heathrow Airport was among the locations to create an umbrella display, while many schools have also participated, with local businesses and councils supporting to ensure every child is happy, healthy and provided with the opportunity to achieve their potential.
Multi-tasking during the COVID-19 crisis
Today we’re living in unprecedented times!
In the past, working from home was probably seen as a benefit. However, the world in which we live at the moment showcases the fact that there are plenty of carers (and people with other personal challenges) who can multitask effectively as needed. They can do their work for the company, as well as be there for the people they care for.
For example, someone who works part-time to facilitate their childcare responsibilities such as mine, has more time in the current conditions to complete all their work and domestic activities, by starting early, finishing late and still keeping their home running.
Perhaps, as we eventually come out of this incredibly challenging time, businesses and organisations will recognise the art of the possible and seek to provide more flexible remote working opportunities for employees, particularly those with ongoing caring responsibilities to people with Autism.