Society needs to understand and adjust to allow autistic people to live in a way that works for them, rather than expecting them to fit in with other people’s way of doing things, autistic trainer and speaker Richard Maguire told Autism Berkshire’s 2018 AGM.
Speaking at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Reading on Monday, November 26, 2018, on the theme of Autism: Growing into Adult Life, Relationships and the Workplace, Richard, pictured above, said simple adjustments and making allowances for autistic people’s sensory and information processing needs were often all that was needed to help them perform well in schools, the workplace and other situations.
He said: “One of the largest aspects of the autistic life is the way that our brains are wired up and the way that our central nervous system works is that we are overloaded on sensory information nearly all the time and we then have to filter out unwanted information.
“It all has to come in and be dealt with. We have got hyper-connected brains with no diversionary routes and the information must all be dealt with, all the time.”
He added: “In autism you can’t get on with anything else until you can decompress and deal with the backlog of processing sensory information. This is often seen in education, where an autistic person is expected to be like someone who is not autistic and retain a roughly even level of attention throughout the day.
“When you’re autistic, it’s like a switch – on-off, up and down. That’s why school is just too much for many autistic youngsters, particularly at primary level.”
He said part of the key to learning how to live an autistic life is helping people around oneself to understand this on-off nature and the need to allow the time to process information and decompress.
“Often what goes wrong, particularly in school, at work and even in family life, is that an autistic person has reached the limit of what we can process but everybody else thinks it’s behavioural. When I was a kid, I was told ‘buck up your ideas, you’re being lazy, you’re not concentrating, get going’. I found that at work too. What is actually going on is that we’re not tuned out, we’re mega tuned-in.
“But when we need to decompress, the world won’t let us, even when that is the simplest thing to do.”
Richard added that autistic people’s passionate interests – it was wrong to talk about obsessions – were often a route to decompression for them, taking them to a place that gave them life and pleasure and took away the pain in other parts of their lives.
Passionate interests were often linked with autistic people’s work, whether in unrelated jobs that allowed someone to earn money to then pursue their interests, or in roles that had a direct connection with their interests, sometimes in technical fields but often in jobs people might not necessarily expect autistic people would make a career in, such as nursing and medicine, the police and education.
He told the audience: “Don’t panic if you or your child’s development isn’t in step with non-autistic people around them… when growing up autistic, you are aware that you are living a different life to other people the same age, but ‘don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring’, because we actually make it, but we often do it on a different timescale, via a different route, often driven by a passionate interest.”
He added: “But when we get to maturity, we are extraordinarily mature, because of what I call this apprenticeship in life. It all comes together and autistic life really picks up speed after a deep development.
“There are no hard and fast rules, it’s an extremely individual process, depending on the person, their development, what they know, how encouraged and affirmed they are.”
While Richard’s own schooling had been difficult, with him eventually dropping out of sixth form, before studying for a number of qualifications, including a degree, as an adult, he said his son, who is a student at Reading University, had been lucky that his schools in Buckinghamshire had allowed him to develop and learn at his own pace.
“No one made a fuss, no one told him he was faulty – just to do it his way. But a lot of schools and workplaces don’t do that, even some specialist schools. Lots of schools do not understand autism, some ‘get it’, others don’t and get it wrong deluxe.”
Returning to sensory issues, Richard said sensory adjustments made for autistic people were often welcomed by others too.
He pointed to the growing numbers of supermarkets providing ‘quiet hours’ for autistic customers: “Lots of the staff wish they would go on all day – they love it. Shops have been checking what customers think and the biggest praise for quiet hours has come from non-autistic people – less noise, less clutter, dimmed lighting, no beeps – they like it too.
“Their brains are overheating on all those things too – we just get there quicker, because of our very active nervous system… it’s just a matter of timescale.”
On another topical note, Richard talked about the issue of autistic people being held in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) and the need to find better ways to help them. Earlier in the day he had been training people involved in an NHS review of care, to help them understand autism and appropriate ways to help autistic people.
He said: “Autistic people often end up in these places (ATUs) – which are absolutely vile – because the expertise to help them isn’t available locally, so when they have a meltdown, they are medicated and put in these places. They don’t need that – all they need is a ‘crash pad’.”
A project in Oxfordshire is developing a facility that will provide autistic people experiencing a serious meltdown with a place to go for a few days to rest and recover in a peaceful environment, before they go home.
“Normally, that’s all that’s needed,” said Richard. “It’s no more complicated than that, but the expertise to do that simply isn’t there in many places.”
Simple adjustments, understanding and support could also make a big difference to autistic people in the world of work or in other situations where they could face scrutiny from a panel of people, he added.
“Autistic people are masters of the undersell. If we don’t have every single skill for the job, we’ll tell people ‘I’m not quite ready’, but I tell autistic people that when every single person starts a job, they aren’t fully up to speed. You just have to be the right person for the job. There’s training and induction and then you can learn the rest when you are there – do not think you have to go straight in at 100 per cent.”
Organisations and professionals also needed to learn the best way to work with autistic people – whether that meant taking more time over inductions to allow autistic people to understand the specific details of a role, to help them build up their knowledge, rather than just being given the broad context, or adapting interview and assessment processes and the ways they communicate, to help autistic people.
This could include allowing autistic people more time to process a question or information and to respond, not asking open questions when autistic people prefer targeted questions, or providing a written outline of what a meeting will be about, so autistic people can prepare answers in advance.
Richard added: “It’s not that we don’t know, it’s the processing time. Often people have no idea about our processing timescales. They put us on the spot and we can’t perform. It’s about reasonable adjustments.
“Flight and fight are normal responses of any human being who has been pushed too far, not just autistic people. Too many professionals think that it’s ‘normal’ autistic behaviour. It isn’t.
“Normal autistic behaviour is a really calm, chilled human, who has great detail focus, but takes a while to process things.”
- Click here to read a report on the formal business part of the AGM