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Local autism group hopes to raise awareness

From left, Sandra Gibson, Louis Delmass-Black, Jonathan Beech and Diane Feneley
From left, Sandra Gibson, Louis Delmass-Black, Jonathan Beech and Diane Feneley

Over 700,000 people are currently living with some form of autism in the UK alone, making it an incredibly widespread issue.

Autism is classed as a spectrum disorder and, therefore, symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Autism is, however, a lifelong condition for all who are diagnosed and this can make it easy for people to see it as a part of their identity.

Many find any form of social interaction challenging.

Despite so many people having it, it can often be difficult to truly understand what it is like to live with autism.

Grantham Jobcentre runs a fortnightly autism focus group with a mixture of people looking for work and already in jobs, who meet to share thoughts with others who have similar disabilities and conditions.

In a bid to address negative perceptions, stereotypes and misperceptions about autism, the group has written two articles for the Grantham Journal, as part of a wider project to raise awareness about the condition.

The first of members’ two articles looks at how autism affects the group members and their coping mechanisms.

How being part of the autism group at the Jobcentre helps us.

At our group meetings we share experiences and solutions to problems, giving each other mutual support. We don’t have to speak, there’s no pressure on anyone to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

We are keen to address negative perceptions, stereotypes and misperceptions about autism and are involved in projects including working with professors at the University of Lincoln, visiting other jobcentres to make presentations, and now writing this article for the Grantham Journal. We would like to support local employers who are interested in making their practices and workplaces more autism-friendly.

Here are some of the ways that being a member of the group makes us feel:

“I have enjoyed being included in something.”

“It helps me to get out of the house.”

“I like sharing experiences with others and the way that we realise that we are not alone.”

“I like the understanding and common purpose that we have.”

“It is great to be with people who I don’t need to explain myself to, where there are no right or wrong answers, and everyone is non-judgemental.”

So, how would we describe what autism is?

Autism is a spectrum. For some the effects are minor, for others they can be totally debilitating.

It is a lifelong disability that affects how we see, hear and feel the world. It is an intrinsic part of who we are, and our own personal identities. Our brains are wired differently to most people’s, with thoughts tending to take ‘more of a scenic route’. Although we all have some common experiences, we are very much individuals in the same way that non-autistic people are.

Sensory overload is a common problem that we face. We are often unable to filter information that others wouldn’t even notice, resulting in too much information and a loss of focus. We experience sensory overload from varying triggers and it affects us individually in different ways. Heat, sound, touch, too many people, unknown variables and multiple questions are some of the triggers that group members are affected by. A number of these can all play on a person’s mind at one time and make them feel that they are overflowing with information. For example, one of us has described being unable to ignore the sensation of a seam in an item of clothing and at the same time feeling the pressure of potential interaction with numerous people in a public place.

This overload can lead to periods when we daydream or ‘zone out’. Most of us also have an ability to concentrate intensely on tasks, this is known as ‘hyperfocus’ and can enable us to be very productive if it is harnessed.

The media often portrays autistic people as geniuses. Think of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, or Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, or Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff in The Accountant. In truth, people with autism have a full range of IQ like the rest of the population.

We generally have more difficulty than most in coping with sudden change and the unpredictable. It is common for us to feel stress and anxiety, especially in social situations or when dealing with unpredictable situations. Some autistic people have a tendency avoid situations that cause stress and anxiety, staying indoors and away from interactions. Social situations can be more difficult for us because we can find it hard to read others’ body language to instinctively know what they are feeling.

Members of our group have devised coping mechanisms to help deal with difficult situations. For some it helps to ask others for assistance when we are anxious, it is common for us to wear headphones and listen to music or white noise in order to reduce the amount of noise overload from multiple sources. For some of us, but not all, stigmatisms such as rocking or playing with fidget finger spinners help. Some of us find it best to be very open and upfront about our autism when we first meet people. Whether we do this, or are more reticent, we are all keen to find a way to become more at ease with others. We generally find it more easy to communicate with people when we feel at ease with them.

n In next week’s article, the group will explain how having autism affects them when applying for jobs and in the workplace.

If you are an employer who would like advice and support on making your workplace become more autism-friendly, contact Jonathan Beech at Grantham Jobcentre by emailing: grantham.employeradviser @dwp.gsi.gov.uk


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