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Autism: from theory to practice

Jemma Byrne

I completed my degree in psychology in July 2014, and by mid-August I had started as a Support Worker with Scottish Autism in the West of Scotland services. 
 
In preparation for my interview I equipped myself with knowledge about the organisation, including the mission statement: ‘to enable people living with autism in Scotland through the whole life journey’, and drew upon my experiences at university.
 
I believed myself to be well-informed about autism. As part of my studies I had enjoyed learning about the condition as an independent module and was fortunate enough to have been involved in a research project with Scottish Autism’s Research Manager, Joe Long. I, therefore, felt I was clued-up and that my learning experience could contribute greatly to my role. Certainly these factors did help theoretically, but it was outside the lecture hall and away from researching on the computer that the real learning experience began. 
 
I remember thinking nervously on my first day of the job, ‘yeah I know what autism is’ and reassuring myself, ‘you know what to expect, you’ve read the books’.
 
Well, the first thing I learned as a Support Worker is that autism in itself and the individuals living with the condition cannot be defined by books. Autism cannot be merely classified by the infamous triad of impairment since the manifestation of the condition is so unique. Yes, we need a theory about what autism is in order to explain it generically, but it certainly cannot be generally defined. Thinking about all the individuals that I’ve met who receive support from Scottish Autism, there is not one like the other. Each has their own personality, pattern of challenges, and successes that makes them individual and consequently no day is ever the same and certainly never boring!
 
I feel fortunate that I am able to now draw upon my practical experience of autism and reflect on how it feeds into my theoretical experience. For example, the Theory of Mind hypothesis, surmises that individuals with autism have a limited concept of other people’s thoughts and feelings. However, the individuals I’ve worked with have demonstrated otherwise and regularly consider how their choices impact on others.
 
Furthermore, a lot of the empirical research out there, especially on sensory processing, has mainly validated and explained the biological causes of what we as practitioners see on a daily basis: light and noise sensitivity, difficulty with fine motor skills and issues with proprioception and spatial awareness. Where the difficulty lies, however, is going beyond recognising these issues and working towards supporting the individual in managing them. This is where I recognise a gap between being a researcher and being a practitioner. Research findings of particular support methods are not likely to apply to all individuals with autism. And this is where more person-centred research would greatly inform the person-centred support we provide.
 
This job has been very challenging at times and one of the most harrowing aspects has been supporting those with self-injurious behaviour. I feel that, surprisingly, this is something that isn’t widely covered in academic courses and doesn’t appear to be a focus of the research or academic textbooks that I had read as a student. I feel it certainly should be more prominent in the literature since I would like to understand more about its occurrence and how best to support individuals living with this.
 
My time working with Scottish Autism has been greatly rewarding and beneficial. Overcoming different challenges every day has furthered my own personal development. Looking back I wish I’d been working as a Support Worker during my studies too, as it would certainly have brought me a greater, holistic understanding of autism.