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The journey to success: Getting the full story about autism

Autism
About 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum - so together with their families, this means that autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.

Buckinghamshire New University has gathered experts in the field to host an Autism Awareness Conference: The Journey to Success, at its High Wycombe Campus on Wednesday 5 April.

Senior Lecturer and mental health nurse David Rawcliffe, chairman of the event, said the conference is a celebration of expertise.

He added: "People on the autistic spectrum do feel and do express their feelings, although sometimes it can be in ways that are challenging for others to understand. My main hope for the conference is to help people to understand the needs of the individual and their family, to help by offering different tools, supports and ideas which they can use, adapt or discard depending on the need and likes of the individual.

"We have very knowledgeable and inspiring speakers on board who are willing to share their ideas and experiences. So the day will be a great chance for visitors to talk to others who offer support for those on the autistic spectrum."

The event, which runs from 9.45am-4pm, will feature key note speakers Colin Martin, Professor of Mental Health Nursing at Bucks New University; Dr Damian Milton, from the National Autistic Society who also has an autistic son and was diagnosed with Asperger's himself; Anna Kennedy, who's two autistic sons were turned away from 26 special needs schools in 1999 and author of 'Not Stupid'; and Ruth Howard, who is developing a Positive Parenting Programme and who also has an autistic son.

There will be 12 workshops examining a variety of issues including: the cross over from ADHD and ASD;  Autism and Learning Disability; Autism and Mental Health; experience a Sensory Room; Education, Health & Care Plans; Emotions, Sensory issues and routines in ASD and Autism and Spirituality among others.

Rhino UK, one of the largest multi-sensory equipment suppliers in the UK, will also be there providing displays and a pop-up sensory room for visitors to experience.

Tickets for the conference, which includes lunch and refreshments, are available through store.bucks.ac.uk and cost £25.

About the speakers:

Dr Damian Milton is Head of Autism Knowledge and Expertise and has an autistic son, and he himself was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2009 at the age of 36.

He said: "Basic awareness that there is a something called autism is now somewhat universal within the UK. Yet a recent survey by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found that 84% of autistic people and their families did not feel that autism was well understood. This is part of the reason for the NAS strap line now being 'Until everyone understands'.

"To improve experiential understanding means being with and listening to autistic people in all our diversity, and even then gaps in understanding will remain. When perceptions of autistic people are dominated by a purely medicalised and pathological model of what autism is, this often leads to prejudicial stereotypes and attempts to remediate a person's 'autism' rather than learning to work with them as an autistic person.

"In my own presentation at the conference I will be looking at how employment is experienced from an autistic perspective and how a lack of understanding and assumptions can create a number of barriers to autistic people finding meaningful occupation."

Anna Kennedy OBE, author of 'Not Stupid', is the mother of two boys who both have autism and she established Hillingdon Manor School which later merged with Hillcrest Autism Service.

She said: "Parents want to be heard and share their experiences and want to be pointed in the right direction for support and services. Early intervention is key for children on the autism spectrum. After a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition parents are desperate and hungry for information. The system for Special Educational Needs is complicated not straight forward. You can either give up, give in or give it all you've got and then some! If you don't speak up for your son or daughter no one else will. Learn the system and if you don't understand speak to an advocate who can help you and point you in the right direction."

David Rawcliffe is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Buckinghamshire New University and also a positive psychologist.

He said: "Some changes in autism awareness can be seen in changing legislation (Autism Act and the Adult Autism Strategy) and in media portrayal of people on the autistic spectrum (The A Word, on the BBC) which showed some of the challenges and struggles of families. Autism is a spectrum of conditions and individuals have their unique set of challenges and responses to these.

"The condition affects the whole family in very many ways. Humans naturally focus on the negatives and how these impact, but remembering the positives is very beneficial and a very good area to work with the individual to ensure success. I hope that if this event is successful we will be able to organise an even bigger Autistic Conference next year."

Ruth Howard is a mother of an autistic son and a student at Bucks New University where she is writing and developing a Positive Parenting Programme based on the science of Positive Psychology.

She said: "Recent years have led to an increased awareness of autism due to a number of high profile campaigns and the Autism Act and strategy. Whilst increased awareness is to be celebrated, we need to bear in mind that campaigns are often focused on the difficulties and challenges that autistic children and adults may face.

"There are many autistic adults who are flourishing and their stories are not being shared or heard. The danger of this is that we create an unbalanced understanding of autism and begin to limit our beliefs and expectations of what people can and do achieve. I am aware of a number of young autistic adults who will not tell people that they are autistic because of these limiting perceptions that increased awareness have led to. I believe that we have a responsibility to provide a balanced perspective about autism.

"Of course we need to support development and help to overcome the difficulties faced by children, adults and families, but we also need to share positive stories of adults in order to create a more balanced understanding and to increase expectations and hope for the future.  I hope that attendees will leave the conference with a renewed perspective and some valuable tools and strategies to use. The conference is an opportunity to gain insight into good practice, current issues, to meet others, and to be inspired!"

Top picture: l-r Anna Kennedy, Ruth Howard, Damian Milton, Colin Martin and David Rawcliffe