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‘It should be celebrated and embraced’, says father raising autism awareness

PUBLISHED: 09:53 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:59 21 February 2020

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg

Anthony Quintano/Flickr

Ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, Norfolk father Phil Betts tells us why the condition is much misunderstood

Mozart, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Dan Aykroyd and Greta Thunberg. All are known throughout the world and have had a positive, if not game changing impact. This isn't the only thing they have in common. All have either been diagnosed as autistic or shown common traits of autism.

If you were asked to explain what autism was, could you define it? Don't worry if you can't as you are not alone. Based on mine and my wife Mandy's experience, autism isn't fully understood by large parts of society.

So, what is it? It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.

You cannot always tell if someone has the disability just by looking at them. It is also just that, a disability and not an illness or disease, it cannot be cured.

People who have been diagnosed with the disability, still live fulfilled lives and can do lots of things and learn skills with the right support. Everyone is different and levels of support differ as do the traits depending where you appear on the spectrum.

Our son Alexander, nearly 8 years old, is awaiting to be officially diagnosed but shows many of the behaviours that are common with autism. From an early age we decided to home educate and having the right support he has excelled. Based on my experience of being educated through the state schooling system, I think he would have struggled on a number of levels. My wife Mandy and I have had this confirmed on several occasions but a recent scenario that occurred was in a group he attends. Despite the organisers being aware of his disability, for various reasons the plans changed on the day when he was expected to be presented with an award. Unfortunately, he couldn't deal with the rapid change of events and the situation became too overwhelming. With a little more thought, support and clear communication, these types of issues can be avoided (I am convinced this happens daily from childhood through to adults in the workplace).

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Alexander struggles like other similar children to make friends and finds meeting new people difficult. On other occasions he gets very frustrated and cannot articulate how he feels. He struggles to understand people, what they are thinking or feel and understanding jokes and ideas.

With a structured routine and small tuition groups (rather than being in large classes) he has learnt to overcome these hurdles. Also, he has developed techniques to manage situations when he starts to feel worried or scared because there is a change in plan. He is a very intelligent, articulate boy and can hold conversations with all ages and types of people. We're convinced the support mechanisms we have in place has allowed him to thrive and grow in confidence.

I can relate to some of my son's behaviours and have been told I demonstrated some of these behaviours as a child. Now 40 years old, I have learnt skills over time that allows me to adapt with changing situations and meeting new people. I have been in full time employment for nearly 20 years, 10 of which have been as change manager!

Despite the many iconic figures who from past and present are or were thought to be autistic, out of the 700,000 people that are currently diagnosed in the UK today, just 16% of these are in full time employment. This for me is damning on society as a whole. Whether in or out work, consciously or subconsciously, people who view the world in a different way or come across as not being 'normal' may not always feel their views are valued. Employers have a lot of catching up to do. Simply by being more flexible and providing support in terms of aspects such as the workplace environment, communication and management, I can clearly see there is an extremely intelligent untapped market of unemployed individuals out there. Many I'm sure could make ground breaking changes if given the chance.

There are signs things are slowly starting to move in the right direction, but fundamentally a cultural change is needed in society to achieve this. Companies such as Universal Music UK have changed their work culture to be more inclusive of neurodiverse people. Another example is intelligence agency GCHQ who work alongside the MI5 and MI6, they actively recruit neurodivergent people who think differently.

People who don't comply with 'normal' society rules are not faulty, they are just different. Autistic people may think in a different way, but this should not be viewed in a negative way, it should be embraced and celebrated.

While the majority view the world vertically, surely it's a no brainer listening to someone who views things horizontally. It is their different outlook on life that allows autistic people to make ground breaking achievements and changes to the world.

To promote the understanding of autism, April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, I will be walking (some of it with our dog Chester!) the length of Marriot's Way (26 miles). All donations will go to the National Autistic Society so I would really appreciate your support to help make a better future for all autistic children. You can sponsor me at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/PhilipBetts2


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