We need to talk about Autism…differently.

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12th Oct 2023

I was talking to a parent the other day whose child had recently been diagnosed with Autism.  They were explaining how they haven’t felt able to tell anyone – other than their child’s teachers (and even that took them a while) – about the diagnosis. Whilst they themselves appreciated their child’s differences, the parent felt that their child should have the same opportunities as their peers and their reluctance to be more open appeared to be, to some extent, due to the potential unconscious bias some people still hold about Autistic individuals.

Those of us working in the SEND sector know first-hand that Autism is not something that should be perceived as limiting someone from reaching their full potential.  We know that Autistic people can live full and rewarding lives.  But is this recognised and appreciated widely enough and is this parent right to feel apprehensive about discussing their child’s diagnosis?

Don’t get me wrong, we have come an incredibly long way in the past 50, 20 and even ten years.  And yet, we still talk about Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Is this right?  Is this language really going to help this parent feel comfortable with their child’s diagnosis and feel able to talk about it more openly?

To properly support, nurture and instil confidence and a sense of pride into those who are Autistic – and their families – we need to start using a different language.  We need to do away with the language of disorders and disabilities and start framing this positively.

We need to find a language which is honest and realistic, positive and celebratory but which is, most importantly, not patronising.  As a first step, let’s stop using disorder.  Let’s just talk about having Autism or being Autistic.

We need to try to understand the challenges Autistic people face so that the right support, encouragement and understanding can be provided to help to address them. At Flourish Learning Trust, we recognise these challenges and are clear that progress looks different for every pupil but whatever that progress is, we need to recognise and celebrate it.  As our new name suggests, we believe in the potential of every single one of our children and young people to flourish and we are relentless in our mission to achieve this.

Autistic people must be given the space to communicate about their experiences, their feelings, their wishes, preferences and their achievements.  This is something we very much encourage at Flourish Learning Trust – particularly amongst our older pupils – and my proudest moments as CEO have been seeing them talk publicly about their lives.  Last year, one of our Project SEARCH interns spoke at Barts Health NHS Trust’s event to mark International Day of People with Disabilities and one of our alumni spoke to The Royal London Hospital’s Board.  These incredible young people captivated their audiences, gave them an insight into their world and showed them how proud they are of themselves and what they have achieved.

And so, my advice to this nervous and anxious parent: embrace the difference, support your child to be their own advocate and champion them.  Encourage them to communicate in their own way to their friends, family and community about the joy and the challenges of being Autistic.

And in return, we must applaud and celebrate this confidence and self-belief and learn more, faster, so we can keep pace as these children and young people thrive, flourish and make their impact in a society which welcomes and harnesses neuro-diversity.

Kirstie Fulthorpe

CEO, Flourish Learning Trust