I have often spoken of the value of strong communities and the role of social workers within them. Community is about supporting each other, without prejudice, to get the most out of life. This human rights, citizenship and inclusive approach must extend to those living with autism, Asperger’s and other cognitive conditions.
It’s a philosophy I’m delighted to see being expressed in Liverpool today, a city of which I am very fond for personal as well as professional reasons, as a whole host of local businesses and charities, in tandem with the council and other public sector bodies, announce their intention to make Liverpool the country’s first ‘autism friendly city’. As a regular visitor to Liverpool, I have always been struck with Liverpudlians’ strong sense of identity and pride in their city and community.
According to leading partners Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city should be one where those with the condition are able to: “travel on public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural institutions, tourist attractions, eat in restaurants and be supported appropriately by healthcare and emergency services.” It’s a simple manifesto we can all sign up to but the challenge will be making it ubiquitous for all.
We’ve already seen this approach applied to dementia of course. The Alzheimer’s Society led Dementia Friendly Communities and Dementia Friends campaigns have been a marked success, as local businesses, health and care services and communities become more sensitive and responsive to people living with dementia, helping them to live well.
As part of their bid for autism friendly status, Liverpool City Council and partners are encouraging local businesses and services to earn the title of Autism Champions. To do this, an organisation must make a public commitment to train their staff in autism awareness. This includes techniques to recognise signs of autism and how best to handle challenging behaviour. Champions are also taught about the different ways people with autism can choose to communicate. For example, those who find verbal communication difficult may find voice apps on iPads or other devices an easier way to make their thoughts known.
I find this kind of concerted community outreach very exciting and, as someone with a close family member with Asperger’s, I know the best kind of support for those on the autistic spectrum is to normalise their experience – a big element of which is providing the same access to local services and facilities as anyone else. Just as important though is the nature of their interactions with the people providing those services. Good customer care, like good social work practice, is about treating everyone with respect: listening to and understanding their needs, concerns and what matters to them.
It’s an approach I’ve long championed in social work and one which I sought to embed further with a series of manuals published last year, two of which provide guidance on how to work with people with autism. Furthermore, my Knowledge and Skills Statement (KSS) sets out what newly qualified social workers need to know and do to best serve the interests of individuals and families, including those with autism.
The manuals address the practical but often complex issues we need to address in our practice with adults. As awareness grows within society, so our interactions with people on the spectrum can only increase. I commend the National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information (TMI) campaign which seeks to raise awareness of the problems autistic people have when the information they are processing becomes too much. We must all learn to respond with kindness rather than judgement as the charity’s new film brilliantly demonstrates.
As social workers, it is our privilege to make a positive impact in helping to promote the independence of others. Liverpool’s enlightened approach to the health and wellbeing of all its citizens echoes the values of our own profession and I look forward to finding out more on my next visit to this wonderful city.