There's an autistic student in my CU
The media stereotypes surrounding autism might lead you to be unsure how an autistic student will fit into your group. But rest assured, many of these stereotypes are far wide of the mark. One slogan proclaims, 'I’m autistic- what’s your superpower?' and it’s true that there are many strengths to the autistic way of viewing the world. An autistic CU member is likely to be loyal and committed and might well prove to have excellent ability in areas such as record keeping, whether membership lists or your CU’s finances. They may well be very open and honest about their feelings, and, contrary to the popular caricature, very empathetic towards other people too.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition affecting how a person communicates with, and relates to, people around them. The National Autistic Society reports that approximately one person in every hundred is on the autistic spectrum. People with autism find difficulty in relating to others in a conventional way. Their ability to develop friendships and to understand other people’s feelings can be impaired. Some people with autism have general learning disabilities, but everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the social world. However, many autistic people have enhanced abilities in areas such as attention to detail and ability to apply themselves to a problem, and this can make them excellent students, employees and friends.
There is a wide range of autism spectrum conditions, ranging from severe autism, where the person will have very little ability to communicate, to high-functioning autism, one specific condition of which is Asperger Syndrome, where the person may have a normal or high intellectual capability. Many autistic people find eye contact difficult. Facial expressions are a mystery so remember to explain in words what your facial expression is saying. Other common features are repetitive behaviour, fixated interests and resistance (often accompanied by distress) to changes in routine.
- There is a tendency to need to focus on only one thing at a time (either looking or listening, rather than both at once). This is one reason for finding eye contact difficult.
- Autistic people generally have a literal understanding of language, so it is very important that you say literally what you mean. For example, don't say 'take a seat', say 'please sit down here'.
- Change makes them feel unsafe and disorientated; predictability feels safe and reassuring. They can be hugely unsettled by what others may see as a very minor difference in routine or environment. It is therefore important to give advance warning of, for example, moving the chairs around or changing the usual format of meetings, to allow the person with autism to acclimatise to the change before it happens.
- Prevention of a distressing situation is always better than trying to solve it once it has become a problem. Therefore, if at all possible, get to know the autistic student, to identify situations that might trigger an adverse reaction and to develop strategies to deal with these.
- Many autistic people dislike loud noises. This can cause problems in worship meetings, especially if music and amplification are loud or sudden.
- Certain sights or smells can cause distress. For example, an autistic student may be upset by the sight of an unexpected notice or dislike the smell of a particular perfume. In these situations someone whom the autistic person knows and trusts should be on-hand to try and establish what is causing the distress and take immediate steps to remove the problem, if possible.
- It is useful to have identified in advance a room or place in the building that the autistic person is familiar with, and comfortable in, which can be used as a safe and welcoming place for escape in the event of any unpredicted problems or if social events are so exhausting that they need to retreat for a while.
- As with epilepsy, people on the autistic spectrum may react to flashing or flickering light. Ensure that if an activity will involve flashing or flickering lights, clear advance warning is given.
- Research has shown that an autistic ‘meltdown’ results from exactly the same type of electrical activity in the brain as an epileptic seizure. At such a time, the person’s behaviour is not within their own control; they are not DOING something but something is HAPPENING to them. Asking them to stop is futile.
- Autistic students may have difficulty making friends because of their difficulties in understanding social situations and feelings. They may not know how to interpret somebody’s behaviour as friendly or unfriendly. They may not understand that others have particular thoughts and feelings or how to be friends with someone in the ‘right way’. Make an extra effort to include them in social activities, be clear about what they should do or not do if they are unsure, and don’t feel hurt when they do not respond as you would expect.
- Many autistic people dislike being touched. Be aware of this if you are used to greeting each other with hugs at CU. It is important to give people dignity and space if they are uncomfortable with this.
- Autistic people, like all of us, need to be loved and accepted. Many autistic people are vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Remember that they feel fundamentally unsafe in a world they do not understand.
- Some people on the autistic spectrum may not see it as a disability, but as a diversity - a different way of thinking. Whilst appropriate help is appreciated, be careful about offering sympathy or suggesting spiritual healing or therapies as it may not be welcome.
- Some people on the autistic spectrum may process information more slowly or differently from others. This can often be misunderstood in meetings, house groups etc. It is therefore important that group leaders be prepared to present things in a different way that is more suited to the autistic individual.
- Assume nothing - always ask.
www.nas.org.uk – See the website of the National Autistic Society for further information.
This resource is part of our Accessible CU series, created especially for Christian Unions by Through The Roof, a Christian Disability charity. To read this article in full, and other articles on including disabled students, download the student version of Through the Roof's publication Be a Roofbreaker for just £3.