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."