What should people know about Learning Disabilities and Autism?

In two recent articles, there is essentially the same question. One here is about a framework for social workers on understanding the needs of their clients, particularly those with disabilities. The other, which the link is now gone for (I suppose they deleted it) was a BBC piece around what teachers should know about students with Autism.

The same questions have been asked before and also of GP’s and other medical professionals, let alone employers and the general public.

I very recently helped some people with Autism who were in hospital and struggling to be understood by the staff. The team on the ward were very good, but asked questions that upset them, and the two sisters who I was helping were immensely frustrated by the very well intentioned requests of the ward team. I informed them of the sisters needs and they did their best. However, very busy hospital staff can only spend a certain amount of time understanding every single person they help.

The same could be said for teachers, except we know that good education is based on adapting to individual need and a teacher not understanding the Autism of a pupil can seriously hinder their learning.

Social Workers on the other hand do need to have a depth of understanding of their clients to ensure they receive the right support at the right levels.

It does seem odd how slowly this level of expectation and education has taken, many people have suffered through either poor support, missed educational opportunities or lack of communication around their health needs. Those with disabilities and Autism have higher rates of unemployment, poor health care and mental health difficulties.

Like any social issue around minority groups (Trans, gay, ethnicity, disability etc.) public understanding and acceptance is always one of the main problems. There has been a great deal of media around the struggles of Trans people recently, which is positive even if most of the stories are negative because it’s bringing it into the public eye. The problem is do people want to know? Do people want to care? There is an issue in society of many people being very much self-centred and not really wanting to think out of their sphere of experience. Fear of the unknown is a problem for many and these individuals who are “different” are unknown. I have met people who have genuinely never interacted with those with disabilities, which for me was initially surprising as I have always done so since school and have made my career working with people with disabilities, it is normal for me. But can I expect a random person on a bus to understand this, or even care?

It is reasonable to expect Health and Social Care and educational staff to understand this and the better their comprehension the more it spreads. The ongoing saga of refugees coming to Europe by boat, and risking their lives to escape probable death in their own countries has shown how many people really don’t have empathy for others struggling. Everyone has their own problems to worry about and each person can only help so much but total disregard of those suffering shows a lack of humanity. I recently delivered some presentations in a school local to where I work and they wanted their students to understand how to treat people with learning disabilities, which I thought was fantastic and progressive. More schools should do this.

Can we make the world more empathic? Yes, but it would take massive cultural and social change. We would need everyone to be able to come out of their own world and think about everyone else they encounter and that’s very unlikely. In our society now we are concerned with paying our own bills and feeding our loved ones, focussing on a stranger’s plight is limited for many. Part of my ongoing mission, and one of the reason I write about this is to hopefully spread these messages more. I can be selfish too, I don’t always look after every person I meet but I am comfortable that I do my best and that’s all I expect from others.


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