World Autism Awareness Day for 2012, ACUK is focusing on positive language and
the skills and unique abilities of people on the spectrum.
We also want to
focus on ‘language’ and how it can contribute to negative stereotypes of people
who, for whatever reason, are unique or different. Here’s a quick example of
how language can discriminate in subtle ways -
awareness has led to reporting that more people are being diagnosed with Autistic
Spectrum Conditions. This is a good thing as it means they are more likely to
get the right support at school and in into their adult lives. So, in many
countries there is a ‘rise’ in the
numbers of people being recognised as having an ASC.
It is not so
great though, when this trend gets described in the media as an ‘epidemic’ of Autism as if ASC’s are
some kind of disease.
No doubt many
of us can think of similar examples where use of negative language can attach
un-necessarily negative meanings or labels. Why, as a parent or a social care
worker would you want to talk about a ‘disorder’ when a ‘condition’ conveys a much
less negative meaning?
Some people might
question the real impact of this on outcomes and even accuse those who stress
the importance of positive language of being overly ‘politically correct’. Well,
at ACUK we simply don’t agree and here’s why –
language we use expresses a whole wider set of beliefs and values (consciously or otherwise). In daily life we might not notice these
nuances - yet for people who require extra support to be fully included
citizens the language we use is vitally important and can set the whole tone
for how support agencies engage with a person.
isn’t it surely logical that seeing (and speaking about) a person in terms of
their skills and abilities foremost is more likely to lead to real and positive
outcomes in their life? If you are not convinced, try this quick and easy five
1)Make a mental
list of the things you are good at, your talents, and the life achievements you
are truly proud of - the things that you are admired or respected for. These
are your ‘skills’. Think of times when you have felt really good, totally
positive, and knew that the important people in your life were there with you,
admiring you and supporting you in what you wanted to achieve.
2)Now take a
mental snapshot of yourself as this person.
another list of things that you find difficult, are not confident doing, or
that have not worked out the way you want – perhaps think of times when you
were not so well regarded by others. These
might be your ‘deficits’. Think too of the ways that you would not want to be
described by others and how it might feel to hear that in the way they speak
4)And now take
a mental snapshot of this person too.
those two images of yourself which one do you prefer?
rather be recognised by others as that first positive person or that second, more
negative one? Would you like to be thought of as having ‘feelings’ or
extend our thinking to the life of a friendly and popular young guy who happens
to have complex Autism and learning disabilities. We will call him Sam. Here’s
that first image of Sam;
admire Sam for his love of textiles, attentive nature, and wide range of facial
expressions. He is a young man who pays
great attention to detail and likes things to be in their proper place. He
likes to keep a tidy home”.
image, though, might look something like this;
extremely disabled and non-verbal. He has an obsession with clothing and will
shred clothes if left unsupervised. He
is overly pre-occupied with certain members of staff and moves items around the
home in a highly ritualistic manner”.
We begin to
get an idea here of the importance of positive language in shaping care and
support interventions. If you take the ‘skills’ position you might see the ‘textiles’
in terms of an interest you can plan positive interventions. This could involve
helping Sam to get a rag box of different kinds of fabrics and building
structured activities around using this.
If you take
the ‘deficits’ (or ‘failures’) position as your starting point the
interventions are likely to be based around preventing Sam from shredding
clothes in ways that may be restrictive and negative. Sam would get frustrated
and might act these feelings out in ways that just re-enforced negative
language and social exclusion.
We have Person
Centred Planning to thank for its emphasis on accentuating positives,
individual uniqueness and for articulating a language that speaks in
unconditionally positive terms. Part of the power of PCP comes from the way it
introduces the person to potential support staff (…“the things that people
admire about Sam are…”).
It is the
language we use that sets the tone from the outset and, when it is positive and
creative can lead to the best kind of outcomes.
Nowhere is this more valid than in the world of Autism where many people
have very notable special interests or talents. We spoke to Pete Cross, head of
strategy at Autism Care UK, about these issues;
may need lots of on-going support to live a positive and happy life, we always
base our interventions on people’s unique skills and talents foremost.
Designing support plans this way focuses what we do on the positive things that
add to the self-esteem of the people we support”
It is obvious
that thinking positively (and talking positively), makes a real difference to
the outcomes for people with ASCs, just as it does for everyone. On 2012 World
Autism Awareness Day let’s hope that people can be truly focused on the great
skills of each and every person on the spectrum. If you know someone who isn’t – send them this post!!