By Richard Mills
Approximately 1 in 100 people in the UK have autism. That is around 700,000 adults and children. Autism is so prevalent that nearly everyone knows someone on the autism spectrum, meaning there is a consequent thirst for knowledge about the conditions. Many, but by no means all of those diagnosed with autism spectrum condition face challenges with communication. Delays in the development of speech and language are often an early indication that, as children, people with autism are different in some way.
Communication and autism
Working with people who have autism spectrum condition, sometimes also referred to as ‘autism spectrum disorder’, can be hard work but can also be truly rewarding, especially when there is a breakthrough in communication that gives someone who has seemingly been locked away in their own world, access to a means of expressing themselves and making connections with others. For most of us, it is hard to imagine what it might be like to be unable to communicate what we are feeling or express our choices about our likes and dislikes. Not having access to a means of communication can lead to unexpressed emotions and sometimes behaviours that challenge. The behaviours are then in a very real sense part of the expression and hence the communication of the individual. The same can be said for society because the way we behave says something about us. What is needed is a willingness to read and understand the communications.
Many people with autism spectrum condition (70%) also have a learning disability. Excellent communication is therefore vitally important to support them in a person-centred way and offer the quality of life they deserve. Our understanding of communication changes when we work with people with different communication needs. Did you think communication was just about talking to each other, writing emails, text messages or even notes and letters? There is so much more to communication. Broadening our understanding and communication skills can be extremely rewarding – it can even help in our life outside of work.
Communication does include talking and listening to each other, and yes that means phone calls, video calls, text messages, letters, and notes. But it also includes reading body language, facial expressions, and silence. Have you ever felt there is something that is not being said? Nearly all of us have times when we are not saying something by ‘keeping schtum’. Then there are reading behaviours that are backed by this awareness that behaviours are always communicating something. Even when we are not communicating in overt or obvious ways there are more subtle expressions taking place. With the right support and guidance, we can all learn to elevate our communication skills to new levels, and this can have a significant impact on those we support.
The importance of communication in the current climate
The recent COVID-19 pandemic exposed something important to all of us about our connections with each other. Imagine how difficult it would be for us not to have the ability to interact, connect, and communicate with one another. Perhaps we have experienced this over the past two years, and now we have a greater appreciation of our ability to connect with others and our communication skills. Just because people with autism and learning disabilities may find it hard, if not impossible, to say so with their words, it doesn’t mean they do not have the same natural desire to connect and interact with others. Helping people to do so has a value that is hard to measure. Think about some of the people who have made a big impact on your own life and recognise that in helping and supporting people with autism, learning disabilities, and others too, we all have the potential to make a big difference in the lives of those we support.
How can we help?
Learning about autism spectrum conditions can be a journey that takes a lifetime. Everyone with autism is unique, individual and is affected differently by the condition. With autism, there is always something more to learn, but our learning must start somewhere, and as part of our suite of online learning, you can take the ‘Autism Awareness’ training, which will provide you with an excellent foundation to build your knowledge. Our ‘Communication Skills’ course can then take you further into developing your understanding of this crucial subject, including how to remove and reduce barriers to communication, to check you have been understood, and where to get further help with communication. To go further still, the ‘Positive Behaviour Support and Non-Restrictive Practice’ course will offer the opportunity to deepen your awareness of the relationship between behaviours and communication. This is a great thing to understand because it gives us access to a way forward where rather than just trying to manage behaviours, we are instead responding to communications. This completely changes the perspective about the behaviours of people with autism spectrum condition and learning disabilities, to one that is more person-centred, focused on quality of life and certainly more enriching. These courses and many more are available for you to access through our person-centred learning suite called ‘Click’. ‘Click’ here to find out more!