Autism affects approximately one in 100 people in the UK; more awareness of the condition is needed. (Photo: Getty Images)

One in One-Hundred

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects approximately one in 100 people throughout the United Kingdom, but is scarcely understood by the general public. More effort is needed by the government to improve understanding of the condition and its effects.

In May 2017, reports emerged that NHS commissioners in southwest London were considering reducing the number of diagnoses offered for children with potential autism spectrum disorders (ASD), recognising instead only the ‘most severe cases’. This drastic measure was proposed as a result of increasing demand for autism diagnoses.

Whilst the area’s mental health authorities possess resources to conduct 750 diagnoses per year (p. 6–7), it is currently receiving approximately 25 referrals per week. Whilst NHS services across the country are under pressure, restricting diagnoses for children with autism is a serious error. As stated by the National Autistic Society, reducing diagnoses will serve only to leave many children ‘unable to access the specialist support they desperately need’. Clearly, significantly greater resources are required by NHS trusts in order to identify and support children and adults with ASD.

I continue with something of a disclaimer. I myself am not diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition, and my experience of the disorder comes from a significant individual in my personal life who is diagnosed with ‘high-functioning’ autism. I feel that, as I have a mouthpiece, it is important to attempt to spread awareness of the condition. Firstly though, some facts regarding the condition. Autism refers to a wide range of conditions that manifest primarily in issues with social interaction, communication and mental development. Of course, no single experience of autism is the same, because the disorder impacts each individual in drastically different ways. Associated effects of autism include difficulties in interaction and communication with other people, dependence on routine and repetitive behaviour. Many autistic individuals are also heavily invested in certain interests and hobbies, which may provide a form of stability.

Autism is a lifelong condition, despite bogus (and dangerous) claims of ‘natural’ cures, and is widely considered to originate from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. To be fundamentally clear: vaccines do not cause autism. This myth, which has been thoroughly discredited, serves only to endanger children and other vulnerable members of society by restricting the effects of ‘herd immunity’. This ensures that the spread of infectious diseases is limited by widespread immunity amongst the general population. Frustratingly, however, more seem to be aware of the myths surrounding autism than the condition or its effects upon peoples’ lives.

More resources must be provided for education about autism. (Photo: BBC)

So, what should the government be doing to improve awareness of autism, as well as supporting those with the condition? To be brief, much more effort is required. Despite the fact that an estimated 700,000 people in the UK experience an autism spectrum disorder, knowledge of the condition is severely limited amongst the public at large. According to statistics gathered by the National Autistic Society, whilst 99% of those questioned said they had heard of autism, only 16% of those with autism believe that people have a good understanding of the condition and its effects. The result of this is that many with autism are misunderstood and ostracised by their peers. 75% of those with autism at secondary school age report being bullied. Many local authorities have been criticised for not providing adequate resources to support schoolchildren with autism.

This is an issue which must be addressed from the top. It is imperative that the government provides greater resources, particularly for schools and teachers. With the introduction of dedicated training for teachers, as well as education for school-age children in order to promote understanding of the condition’s effects, children and teenagers with autism would surely feel more welcome in school environments. Without adequate support and awareness from others, autistic schoolchildren risk being isolated and stigmatised. Indeed, 75% of parents of autistic children stated that their child had been labelled as ‘strange’. This reflects a general lack of understanding about the effects that autism has on an individual; what one person may view as ‘unusual’ behaviour may simply be the result of an autistic person trying to cope with a stressful situation. More resources must be provided to educate school-age children in particular on the effects of autism, in order that they better understand individuals with the disorder.

For sure, some advances have been made. The Autism Act of 2009 was the first piece of legislation that required the government to set out guidelines for supporting autistic people in the UK. In the succeeding years, it has led to a series of Autism Strategy documents which have made various recommendations to improve the lives of those with autism. For one, these have led to improved data collection which will aid future efforts to support those with autism. It has also resulted in improved training for GPs and other healthcare professionals.

Dedicated training for teachers would improve the experience of school for children and teenagers with autism. (Photograph: National Autistic Society)

However, there are still more steps to be taken. The 2009 act failed to provide funding to support new services for autistic people, and issues surrounding the UK’s social care system will only exacerbate the problem. Rather than restricting diagnoses, as was suggested in London, increased funding must be provided in order to provide the families of autistic children with the support they need. Reducing the possibility of diagnosis would also bring great uncertainty, leaving potentially autistic people feeling out of place in society without explanation.

More steps should also be taken to support adults with autism. As stated previously, autism is a lifelong condition, yet support for adults is lacking. Many autistic adults experience great difficulty in finding employment; the National Autistic Society reports that only 15% of adults with autism are in full time work. Many experience great difficulty in applying for jobs; debate even exists as to whether autistic people should disclose their condition on CVs when applying for jobs, as they may be met with a lack of understanding or even immediate dismissal by potential employers. Again, some measures have been enacted; the Autism Innovation Fund initiated under the 2014 Think Autism strategy awarded funding to local authorities in order to, amongst other things, provide employment services for those with autism. Again though, only a minority of autistic people receive assistance finding employment. This can be seen only as a vast waste of potential, and must be addressed by the government.

In spite of the number of people affected by the condition in the United Kingdom, autism is severely misunderstood by the public at large. The result of this lack of awareness has been to isolate those with autism, leading to association with stigmas and myths that must be addressed. More effort is needed by the government to promote understanding of autism. Through increased awareness, autistic people will surely experience less stigma and isolation, and with proper support will be able to properly fulfill their aims in life. Only through proper resources can this be achieved. The government must step up in order to support a vastly under-recognised and under-supported demographic.