Lesa Walton Brookdale CareIn this guest blog, Lesa Walton writes about how openness about autism is the key to tackling the stigma around the condition and improving care and treatment:

On April 2, we marked World Autism Awareness Day, and I believe we’ve seen noticeable positive developments in the care and treatment for people with autism.

The range of autism therapies available has improved markedly, and a personalised approach to care is becoming the norm. Importantly for adults, The Autism Act of 2009 has enshrined in law their right to appropriate services. 

At the same time, however, we face the challenges of new commissioning arrangements and the restrictions of NHS and social care budgets.

Yet, for me, it is the stepping up of public education and awareness of autism, coupled with tackling the stigma of it that must be the cornerstone of efforts to improve care.

Reflecting the successful anti-stigma campaigns in mental health, autism needs to de-stigmatised, not just among specialists and professionals, but lay people. I have had the immense fortune to be around people with autism for the past 13 years, and for me autism is a part of everyday life, not an illness. It is a human characteristic. One can be left-handed, right-handed, be tall or short. One can also be autistic. I support World Autism Awareness Day because it goes some way to normalising autism.

For me it is also important to educate and inform children diagnosed with autism. Take away the stigma, and likewise be honest with teachers, parents and friends. Talk openly about it. That’s the future I dream of. A future where parents don’t whisper secretly to each other in the playground about the ‘boy with autism’. Autism should not be a secret.

I also believe the future lies in adults and children with autism being better equipped to develop self-coping and management skills. If they don’t, anxieties and associated problems are only temporarily allayed. They resurface later.

Clients at Brookdale Care, for example, participate in psycho-education programmes. This involves encouraging a person to gain insights and understanding of their autism - how it makes them feel and react to different scenarios. They then are supported to develop coping strategies to help them manage and succeed.

Autism care and treatment has come a long way since the 1990s, especially with the de-institutionalistion of services. What happened at Winterbourne View was shameful, and highlighted the vulnerability of some adults in our society and brought safeguarding of vulnerable adults to the forefront of our minds. This, in turn, has focused us and hopefully all other adult care providers on our own safeguarding practices, resulting in us minimising the possibility of a repeat of Winterbourne View. It also means that for the first time adult protection is as high profile as child protection.  

Nevertheless, enabling the public to talk openly about autism must also underpin all future developments in care and support. It is only by communicating the message that autism is a different, but ‘normal’, characteristic of everyday life that we can progress society’s tolerance and acceptance of autism. This is the future I urge us all to work eagerly towards.

Lesa Walton is managing director of Brookdale Care, a leading independent provider of hospital, residential and supported living care for people with autistic spectrum conditions.