Sunday 10 February 2019

Autism. Is your training from the 1940s?

1940s male teacher at a blackboard, using a cane to point to an equation. Caption reads, "Thus we conclude that unless the small boys are biting someone or solving this equation, they are not autistic. Any questions?"

In the 1940s, there was some early information about autism.  Most of it was wrong.  Unfortunately, a lot of it is still in the manuals and training materials, but upgraded in parts to newer wrong information.

We've made such progress with understanding the value of diversity.  Females, LGBT+ people, those from ethnic minorities including the Black and Brown communities.  We know a lot of the prejudice and myth when we see it, for those marvellous groups, yes?  But, for autism, we have breathtaking nonsense coming from some of the bigger charities, I'm afraid.  No easy way to say it, so there it is.

So many myths.  If you're about to receive training, you could treat this as a sort of '1940s training Bingo card'...

About numbers. (No, it's not 1 in 100, it's around 1 in 30, though 1 in 40 isn't a bad guess either).
About 'lack of social skills' (No, the work of the DART team shows ours are different and as effective)
About ability. (No, it's not linked to a low IQ; we were using the wrong IQ tests).

About conduct. (Actually, autistic people are less likely to be criminals than anyone else).
About gender. (No, it's not just males).
About speech. (Most autistic people do learn to speak as children, and some are our best authors, poets and specialists).
About age. (No, it's not just young boys, & no, we don't 'grow out of it', any more than people grow out of being white, or female).
About ethnicity. (No, it's not just white people).
About employment statistics. (No, it's not 16% in full time employment, it's a lot higher than that, but we haven't found that many autistic adults/we force them to hide and not disclose they're autistic).
About 'cost' to society. ( In fact, society benefits greatly from autistic minds, financially and otherwise, and we don't measure someone's worth only in money).
About the need for early intensive expensive therapies or the child will be a 'dribbling wreck' forever (Actually, good research shows that most go on to develop skills quite naturally,  just at a different time.)
About autistic people needing a cure. (No, most are very clear that we don't want one, although personal choice would be respected if there was any such thing as a cure, which there isn't.  It's a natural diversity, not a disease, although a minority who also have other situations/disabilities etc need significant support. In the same way, some females need significant support. Some males, some LGBT people, some People of Colour. We wouldn't dream of suggesting that everyone in those groups was incompetent, yes?)
About autistic people needing to be stopped from focusing on specialist topics. (No, research shows that's often our way to good careers).
About the need for eye contact to be given, in order to achieve in life.  (No, new research shows that even non-autistic people generally don't bother, and it makes no difference at all to friendship chances.  Also, Blind people can't do this, so what's the problem with autistic people not doing it?).
About autistic people being 'the problem' with relationships and social skills.  (No, it's a double empathy problem, where autistic people communicate differently and have a different cultural understanding. Most prejudice comes from untrained non-autistic people).
About a lack of empathy. (No, good research shows this is just a myth).
About a lack of theory-of-mind, i.e. the ability to understand that others have different opinions.  (No, that has been debunked as well. Most gain this just fine as they grow up).

So, how on earth have we ended up with this many myths continuing painfully from one decade to the next, crushing the next set of autistic people, and the next, and the next?

I'm afraid the answer is that too much of the training has been stuck in the 1940s.  Too much is done by non-autistic people.  Often ones who happen to know an autistic person in some way (maybe a relative) but seemingly have never asked them about life.  I mean 'asked' in any communication sense, not just speech.  

Well over a million autistic people in the UK, maybe 2 million - and too often, such trainers have none of them as personal friends, none of them as colleagues.  Isn't that odd?

Such trainers pass on the ancient myths, generation after generation.  They write them down, put them on Powerpoint presentations, and deliver them to you as if they are fact.   Research based in part on materials from the 1940s onwards, which was based largely on watching groups of profoundly disabled young men in a care home, as far back as the 1940s.   As far removed from a balanced view of autism as one can get, in fact.  It's been like basing all of the information on better gender balance in companies by looking at women in a mental hospital in 1930 and saying "This is what all women are like!".  Just bizarre.

Worse still, they often expect you to pay for this.  It might look slick, with excellent graphics, and the trainer might look like they could pose for a fashion magazine .  But...are you really wanting 1940s material?  I wouldn't touch some of it with a proverbial bargepole.

Some have put poor quality training online.  In as little as half an hour, you can achieve a pass in understanding autism....except you're doing no such thing. Most online courses are very poor quality, filled to the brim with the above-mentioned myths, and peppered with photos of a suitably unemployed-looking white bloke, loitering on a park bench somewhere.  As if this is something to do with the average autistic person.

Does it work, all of the Tragedy stuff?  Let's look at the outcomes after enduring decades of this myth-making and misunderstanding from some.

Are autistic people better employed?  No.
Are the autistic people who are in employment better able to disclose that they're autistic, safely?  No.
Do they have safer lives?  No.
Do they have better education?  No.
Do they have better healthcare?  No.
Do they have greater access to arts, culture, faith -  things that bring joy and meaning to life?  No.

I'm going to be quite clear that some places are excellent.  Some people are excellent.  Some trainers are excellent.  Some researchers, parents, teachers and people from all other groups are excellent.  I'm blessed with working with a lot of them.  I'm also going to be clear that yes, some autistic children need a lot of support, and so do a minority of all adults, of any kind, autistic or otherwise.  And of course society needs to ensure they - and their families - get that support. By all means direct such families to the autistic specialists and allies that they need to help them with their young person.

But, generally, the state of training on autism is of low standard and some of it is lacking integrity. 

I've been in this industry a long time, and spent many years as a professional trainer on autism, working nationally and internationally with groups of all kinds.  What I see, and hear, from some of the bigger charities and groups, is very poor.  I won't name names, because that's unprofessional.  But dragging a token autistic person onto a stage to give you a three minute 'and this is something I crayoned when I was five' talk....unpaid of course....well, no.

Do we need to do better than this now?  Oh yes, indeed.

So, how do we do this?

For a start, you need to ensure that your training is authentic:

Ask:  Whose company is this?  Is it led or co-led by autistic people?    Do you want training from people who don't have confidence in autistic people to co-lead?

Who designed and created the trainingAre they qualified to do so, either from lived experience and excellent train-the-trainer skills, or via a professional modern neurodiversity-friendly course?  Are they autistic people, perhaps in partnership with allies?  

Were they paid properly for that, at the same rate as the non-autistic people?  Think about your company's anti-slavery Corporate Social Responsibility statement.  You don't want to be teaming up with groups  who use autistic people as 'slave labour', and I'm afraid some do. Except they call it 'volunteering' (i.e. no offer to pay), or 'work experience' (i.e. no offer to pay).  Or, they pay only a token amount, way below living wage.   We have houses, families, bills to pay.  We need actual money, the same as everyone else.

Who is delivering the training?  Is it autistic specialists, perhaps with allies as well?  I don't mind it just being allies for some courses if they are working firmly as equals with autistic trainers and advisers generally.

If the answers to that are 'no', you might be getting '1940s training', and perhaps perpetuating the awful lives that some autistic people already experience, through no fault of their own.

Insist on authentic, expert training from autistic-led teams and our allies.

Know that 1 in 30 people in companies, professions etc is autistic, and already doing a great job.
Don't force them to spend a lifetime hiding, because of myths.

Thank you.

Research links?