Buildings and businesses around the world will “Light Up Blue” and people will wear light blue on Tuesday April 2, 2019, the 12th annual World Autism Awareness Day to raise global awareness about this poorly understood but pervasive issue.
While autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been on the rise around the world in the last 20 years or so, some amazing changes can be observed. It is rare to meet someone these days who is not touched by ASD in some way. In my blog post today, two changes, one near and dear, and one from afar will be described below.
6 years ago, when The Harbour School went through its first WASC accreditation process, the evaluators interviewed everyone at the school. I vividly recall a conversation between the WASC folks and a small group of THS parents whose children had participated in the TCI STARS SEA course. When asked about their children’s experience in STARS, some of the THS parents remarked that they had felt that their neurotypical (NT) children benefited more than the student with ASD. Why do we think that the THS parents might have felt that way?
STARS is a structured play date with one Applied Behavior Analysis teacher from TCI, one NT student from THS, and one student with ASD who gets TCI support. The two students participating in STARS play games, listen to music, and enjoy art activities while learning social cues and turn-taking. And they have fun. The teachers’ role is to facilitate cooperative play and to assist the NT student in how to play with the student with ASD and visa versa through modelling or suggestion. Both students benefit from this activity. The student with ASD benefits from learning to like to play with another child. In our view, this is the first step in forming the basis of a friendship. Making friends is usually very difficult for children with ASD.
The NT student, on the other hand, learned empathy, helping behaviors, and more. Empathy and helping behaviors are part of the prerequisites for becoming successful future parents and as well effective managers. Helping others is one of the cornerstones of socially appropriate and ethical behavior as well as the basis of The Golden Rule.
When students with ASD struggle to participate in THS classes or lessons, it is commonplace to observe NT students provide verbal or physical prompting, corrections, and social praise when warranted. Many THS students are actually quite consistent and independent when they provide this support. The longer that a student has been enrolled in THS, the better they tend to be at functioning in this mentor or tutor type of a role. Our NT students at THS who have siblings with ASD tend to be well versed in this type of tutoring. They are like little teachers who can be observed to help their peers with or without ASD without hesitation. It is a truly beautiful thing to see this in action when kids teach kids in natural learning environments.
Changes have been observed in other fields as well due to the increase in the number of people with ASD. Companies have caught on to the trend to employ persons with ASD and to capitalise on their strengths. For example, a German IT company sought to hire 650 workers with ASD by 2020. In that company’s view, while they acknowledge that people with ASD tend to have difficulty with social relationships, “in the world of computers the tendencies they often display such as an obsession for detail and an ability to analyse long sets of data very accurately can translate into highly useful and marketable skills.”
There are also examples of such progressive thinking in Asia. Since 2014, the government in Singapore has set up an agency called SG Enable which focuses on driving SEN inclusion in the workplace and boosting the employability of people with SEN including ASD.
Hence, in order to further crank up the momentum of this welcome change, it is important to observe World Autism Awareness day on 2 April. As more people, organisations and governments around the world become aware, informed, and accept autism, I am confident that we will see more and more businesses and governments across the world work toward inclusion of neurodiverse people in the workplace and the community.
In fact, it is this kind of innovative problem-solving and commitment to change that will differentiate the successful companies from those that that resist change. Put another way, the pessimist sees every opportunity as a difficulty while the optimist sees every difficulty as an opportunity. For people with ASD, the winds of change are blowing in their favour and it is a happy and welcome change indeed.