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In early 2015, our lives were turned upside down when I received a phone call at work from my eldest son Robert’s P6 teacher. What began as concerns about his levels of anxiety, eventually resulted in him receiving a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS), an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

This week (starting Monday 26 March) is World Autism Awareness Week, leading up to World Autism Awareness Day on Monday 2 April. Rob believes that on World Autism Day everyone who is autistic should be treated like mothers on Mother’s Day. I suspect he is just trying to scam me for extra chocolate.  

There is a saying in the autism community that goes: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.  What this tries to convey is that, while everyone on the autism spectrum shares related challenges, they may present in very different ways; what you learn and experience working with one autistic person may not translate to the next person you meet. If you are still unsure about what autism is, I highly recommend this short film as a good foundation.

As well as being Autism Awareness month, April also brings another significant event to our household: making S2 subject choices. Whether you’re the parent of a child with autism, or work with children like Robert, I thought it might be helpful to share some of our experience of how AS can affect subject choices.

We have been discussing subject choices since it was first mentioned in school back in August, and Robert’s stress and anxiety has been building since then. Knowing that at some point he is going to have to make choices that will affect his future is an almost unbearable burden for a 13-year-old who struggles to predict the consequences of the simplest everyday actions.

According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time work. TV presenter Chris Packham spoke frankly in his BBC documentary ‘Asperger’s and Me’ about how he managed to successfully buck that trend by being lucky enough to get a job that wholly lined up with his passion. 

Autism is typically linked with having intense interests which, at times, can be all-consuming for the individual. Conversely, it can be incredibly difficult, to the point of impossible, for people with autism to concentrate on things they do not enjoy or see the point in. At SDS we believe that aligning subject choices with a young person’s strengths and interests is important, but for young people on the autistic spectrum, it can be vital to their success. Unfortunately, it is not always that straightforward.

Some of my son’s subject choices will be positively opting for the things he enjoys; others are ‘what is left after we have eliminated all the classes you struggle with’. Robert has been learning to play guitar for four years now; he has played solo on stage, recently acquired his first bass guitar, loves going to gigs, and constantly sings around the house. However, a classroom full of people playing different music at the same time is overwhelming and disorienting to him, at times even physically painful; and being required to listen to music he doesn’t like can prompt a meltdown. Music, despite being a strength and an interest, would not be a wise subject choice for him. 

Knowing that at some point he is going to have to make choices that will affect his future is an almost unbearable burden for a 13-year-old who struggles to predict the consequences of the simplest everyday actions.

Hannah Dunbar

Being able to separate his enjoyment of a subject from his ability to cope with the teaching environment has been one of the biggest challenges for us.  He’ll tell me he doesn’t enjoy English because his teacher has a tendency to wheel the white board in front of the door during class which makes him anxious about the potential fire risk; in his mind, this totally overrides his absolute love of reading and flare for creative writing. Helping him to strip back the emotions and the sensations of being in the classroom and try to focus on the simple question of ‘would I enjoy this subject?’ has taken months of conversation, and in some cases the answer is still ‘I don’t know’. 

At every stage I have had to challenge myself as a parent to put aside my pre-conceptions and focus on what will help him succeed. I’ll confess, the initial conversations around taking up Computer Games Development and Media Studies over, say, History or Spanish may have been tainted by my prejudices, but knowing he will be able to engage in subjects he actually enjoys amid the grind of the compulsory subjects has helped me come around.

In preparation for writing this blog, a friend asked his 70,000+ global online community ‘Autistic Not Weird’ about their experience of careers advice (you can read it here). One woman shared how, because she excelled academically, she was encouraged to follow the traditional high performing careers of law or medicine; with no regard for the fact she struggled intensely to work with people. It took well into her twenties to eventually discover the right career path after lots of pain and disappointment. I would like to think that if she had been able to access our career information, advice and guidance services in school, and had been supported to consider her strengths, interests and horizons, she may have found her ideal occupation far sooner.

I don’t know whether Robert will turn out to be one of the 16% I referred to earlier, but I do know that along the way we will both need to keep challenging our choices and expectations.  I also know that getting his subject choices right is just one step; navigating the rest of his learner journey will be a whole new adventure.

“Mum,” he said at Christmas, “is there a job where I can just follow rules all day?” If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

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