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Embracing diverse behaviour

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Embracing diverse behaviour

A growing network of support services is helping Sunshine Coast people, diagnosed as having autism, to navigate life’s challenges and ultimately shine by being accepted for who they are. WORDS: Linda Read.

Cooper Munro, at 16, is learning to drive. While this may be a perfectly ordinary milestone for many teenagers, it’s cause for a little extra celebration for Cooper.

He was diagnosed at age four as having autism, which his mum Claire Gilmour says caused their lives to take a “bit of a detour”.

That detour led her and Cooper to negotiate the world from an entirely different point of view to that which Claire had imagined when she first became a mother.

In 2020, driven by her lived experience and a passion for helping to improve the quality of people’s everyday lives, she established Social Studio: a support provider for autistic and
neurodivergent people.

The centre, now with two locations on the Sunshine Coast, forms part of a growing network of support services for people living with autism in our schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

This month, as the country celebrates national Autism Awareness Month, Claire hopes the campaign will shine a light on the unique contribution made and challenges faced by members of the neurodiverse community.

She also wants people whose children receive an autism diagnosis to embrace the support that is available for them and their families.

“An autism diagnosis is not the end of the world – your child is still the same child they were before the diagnosis,” she says.

“All the diagnosis does is open up support, help and understanding. It just opens the world up for your child.

“That’s all anyone wants: for them to live their best life.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that autism – also referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – constitutes a diverse group of conditions related to development of the brain.

WHO reports that these conditions are characterised by some degree of difficulty with social interaction and communication. Other characteristics are atypical patterns of activities and behaviours, such as difficulty with the transition from one activity to another, a focus on details and unusual reactions to sensations.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), a national support provider, states on its website that “autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others and experiences their environment”.

“It is a lifelong disability that starts when a person is born and stays with them into old age,” Aspect says.

“Every autistic person is different to every other. This is why autism is described as a ‘spectrum’.”

Raising awareness of autism and neurodiversity is vital, Claire argues, to foster acceptance of people who are different, and to educate members of the broader community about how having autism can affect a person’s daily life.

“Most of the community has heard about autism, but are they actually aware of how autism can affect the person in day-to-day life – whether that’s with social interactions or with employment?” she asks.

“Are they aware of why someone is not looking you in the eye when they talk to them? Are they aware of why someone may struggle with communication, as my son Cooper does?

“He has a different speech pattern; he has a bit of an accent.

“He might not reply straight away because of the processing speed.”

Speech pathologist Kylie Martin, who is director of Chatter-boxes Therapy Centre on the Coast and whose work contributes to the identification and diagnosis of autism, explains the neurological process in more detail.

“Most autistic people have differences in the way they communicate socially, the way sensory information is taken in, understood and given meaning by the body (sound, light, texture, taste) and how the brain moves and thinks about information,” she says.

“These brain-based differences can make operating in the everyday world more difficult.

“What some of us might hear as background noise could be felt as loud and overwhelming for an ASD person.

“While some of us might have a variety of interests that we engage in across the rhythm of our lives, an ASD person may have a deep and fascinated interest in one or two areas.

“Where many of us are driven for social connection because of differences in social communication styles, while many ASD people crave social connection, they may be unsuccessful or misunderstood in their interactions.”

Unsurprisingly, these difficulties can result in significant challenges for people with autism, such as anxiety and social isolation, Kylie explains.

Learning in a mainstream classroom and fitting into a workplace can also be extremely difficult.

“When a person’s regulation, sensory and cognitive profile is not properly understood, difficulties can arise in the workplace and even impact significantly on everyday living activities,” she says.

Claire explains that Cooper’s own experiences in the education system continue to challenge him every day.

He enjoys being with friends, but comes home exhausted every day.

“If they’re in a big group, he can’t really understand what they’re saying because everyone is speaking so quickly and over the top of each other. So, he can’t break down those conversations and then process everything to then reply,” Claire says.

“So he goes, and has friends, but it’s still a huge challenge.”

Many young people with autism experience bullying, she says, which can lead to lifelong trauma. She encourages young people to “support and encourage” students in their school communities who are different.

“It’s really about education: teaching people not to get on the bandwagon and bully and ridicule, but be that hero – be that one that actually stands up and says: ‘That’s not okay’,” she says.

Among the most vital areas of support, Claire believes, is the connection with specialised speech therapists, occupational therapists and support workers – services that have become increasingly more accessible in recent years, thanks in large part to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Kylie believes autism is not something that needs to be ‘fixed’, but a quality to be embraced, understood and, ultimately, accepted.

“Autism is not a problem to be solved,” she says.

“Rather, our role as therapists is to discover the unique and wonderful learning and behaviour patterns of the individual, help them and their significant others understand that profile, and allow the strengths to shine and work together to build skills in areas that are tricky.”

There is work to be done, however, to continue to change attitudes and improve understanding – one of the goals of the Autism Awareness Month campaign.

Kylie believes as individuals, we can all make a difference in our communities through showing kindness, compassion and acceptance.

“With one-in-36 people now having a diagnosis of ASD, we would all do well to step out of our comfort zones and our set ways of doing things and truly get to know the people living with brain difference in our life spheres, and do what we can do to be inclusive,” she says.

“Yes, there are challenges that come up relationally that we might not have the skills or capacity to deal with effectively as community members, but every human being is worthy of love, acceptance, connection, accommodation and a meaningful future.”

Claire could not agree more – and as Cooper embarks on his latest challenge towards achieving his driver’s licence, she couldn’t be prouder.

She praises his bravery.

“Our guys are not weird. They’re not strange – their brain just works differently,” she says.

“They have a different way of thinking, and interacting. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“It’s just different.”

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