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11/07/2012

How to integrate people with autism into society

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders have far more difficulty fitting into society than the average person. So Glenn Rampton, chief executive officer of Kerry's Place Autism Services, asks: Why do we insist on making them fit in?

Instead of forcing them to modify their behaviour, he says researchers, clinicians, and care-givers need to look at how to change the environment to fit them.

Rampton, a former senior psychologist with the Canadian Forces, says we already do this in the military.

Think of the pilot flying an F-18 aircraft. He or she is working in a hostile environment, just like someone with autism. The measure of success for the pilot is they have to be able to fly the plane, compete and win. To do that, they have to be well trained. But to fly an F-18 aircraft, they will need a number of environmental modifications, such as a pressurized suit, a digital display to manage the huge amount of information coming in, and computer-assisted flying equipment.

"Those are all modifications that allow someone to exist in a hostile environment," he says. If we can do that for the military, there’s no reason why we can’t do it for people with autism, he reasons.

Individuals with autism and Asperger's often have a unique ability to focus intently on a task or interest. Agencies working with adolescents and adults with autism should be crafting programs that help them discover their unique skills and talents. Then they need to tailor vocational or work environments to meet their specific needs.

Rampton sees it as a three-step process: How do you define success for this person? For someone with Asperger's it may be employment, while for someone with non-verbal autism, it may be a vocational placement. What are the person’s abilities? Training and preparation can help them hone their skills to suit a vocation.

Finally, what kind of environment do they need to be successful? "Basically, we are talking about how do we define success, how do you get them ready for it and in what environment?" he says.

Rempton, whose 42-year-old daughter has severe autism and does not speak, says he learned the hard way. "By forcing people to be like everybody else, to live in a neurotypical world, it resulted in huge anxiety," he says. "The majority of people with autism have anxiety, whether they have Asperger’s or are like my daughter.

"My daughter has anxiety and that was our fault for not understanding how to create an environment to suit her better," he says. "She is not going to be able to do the same sort of things an Asperger’s person could do. But she can still have a good life in an environment that suits her."

Comments

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I really like Glenn Rampton’s analogy of the F-18 pilot. There must be countless stories of parents or professionals working closely with a child with autism, who have had to revise their expectations or been surprised by the potential a child demonstrates. Striving to uncover the skills and talents and recognize the potential of individuals with autism seems so worthwhile for so many reasons.

Thank you, Laurie, for covering the adult side of the equation. Who decides what is normal, and what accommodations a person with ASD needs? Adults need to be included in the discussions of Quality of Life and successful outcomes.

Women present very differently than men, are less readily diagnosed, and often have children on the spectrum. I look forward to more reporting on the subject.

CA Jenkins, Asperfemme Ottawa

We're doing a much better job these days preparing the child for the world . . . but we're still way behind in our efforts at preparing the world for the child. Sure, we're integrating children with a disability into the classroom (that's a good thing) but if the necessary supports aren't put into place, it's a recipe for disaster!

Integration is not the same thing as inclusion and we need to do a much better job of teaching the other children about their classmate's disability. We need to be cognizant that those on the margins of "normalcy" are often prime targets for the bullies. We need to protect them - not just physically, but also emotionally. We need to teach our children how to build bridges to those who can't meet them half way. And, we need to let our teachers teach.

Perhaps if we had a model that supported the student in the classroom and the child on the playground, we might just be able to change the way we do society. This should be our goal for all children - regardless of ability or disability.

In fact, it's time we cast aside the "dis-ability" model entirely. Instead, we should be focusing our resources on defining the challenges and opportunities of a child's "different-ability". Every child has gaps in their development and every child has special gifts. Some children have more challenges than others and we can't just accept celebrating the "easy" wins. As a society, we will be judged by how we help those who are most vulnerable.

This is our challenge - and our opportunity. The world we'll be living in 20 years from now exists on the playgrounds of today. Let's get it right.

We must get it right!

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  • Welcome to the Toronto Star's autism blog, a daily amalgam of breaking news stories, features, trends and ideas flowing from our Autism Project. The blog is written by Star reporters: Kate Allen, Andrea Gordon, Laurie Monsebraaten, Kris Rushowy, Leslie Scrivener, and Tanya Talaga.

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