Safeguarding Children with Autism By Claudia Bell, Safeguarding Advisor, CCPAS
Written on 4th Dec 2015 by Sylvia Lowery
I really enjoyed reading Alex’s article. Alex Lowery gives an excellent portrayal of his life, both as a child growing up with autism and, as an adult, how he has developed coping mechanisms to help him navigate through the ongoing barriers he faces. But his story also raises some interesting issues about how autism is perceived by others; how we in turn respond to the daily challenges they must cope with and how we support those who care for them.
Through the hard work and commitment of a number of different charities, the general awareness of autism is definitely on the increase. However, we need to remember that whilst autism is a disability, it is also a spectrum condition. This means that every person with autism is different. As a parent of a child with autism, I agree with the saying ‘if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism’! It is therefore impossible to generalise about the condition, although it can manifest itself in some commonly known traits or behaviours which might present as rigid, awkward or anti-social.
Anyone who has attended any sort of safeguarding training should be aware that some children – especially those with disabilities or additional needs – may need extra support in order to help them talk about what is happening to them or to communicate their feelings. We know too that people with disabilities are often more vulnerable to abuse than others.
Earlier this year, I attended a conference organised by the National Autistic Society1 . It was attended by a wide variety of safeguarding professionals as well as parents and carers from around the UK; its main aim was to explore the complex issues linked to safeguarding and autism. One is the level of anxiety evident in many people, who already understand the fine line between offering support to families in need and dealing with concerns about the welfare of a child sensitively and appropriately.
Autism is a lifelong, complex condition but for many it is also a hidden disability. As a safeguarding adviser for CCPAS I have delivered many training events to churches and faith groups. Church workers and those who work on the frontline often seek clear and concrete guidance about how best to work with children or adults with additional needs.
“There is an increased risk of professionals becoming over familiar with the behaviour that a child with autism exhibits. They are then
at risk of professionals failing to pick up other concerns, or seeing new behaviour as an extension of behaviour that has already been observed. A clear understanding of autism and its impact on a child
is imperative, as is the ability to recognise subtle changes or other indicators, and remaining open to the possibility of abuse or neglect. A clear understanding of how autism impacts upon each individual child is crucial in determining an appropriate response to indicators of abuse.” – The protection of children and young people from violence and abuse, National Autistic Society.
Parents and carers of children with autism will be used to professionals asking them lots of questions. They will also be used to people saying
unhelpful things such as ‘they will grow out of it’, or well-meaning but misguided Christians offering to pray for their healing. But I am sure that
if you ask Alex (or anyone else living with or caring for someone with autism) they will tell you about their uniqueness and the contributions
that they make somewhere in society. A critical or judgemental attitude is the last thing they need, as it only creates further anxieties and misunderstandings. Parents and carers often undergo daily struggles, too, and their tireless efforts to provide the best care they can for their children with autism can sometimes go unnoticed. A listening ear, offering practical support or a word of encouragement can go a long way towards opening the lines of communication. As with any good safeguarding procedure, gathering the facts should be the first priority, particularly if there are any concerns about the welfare or safety of a child.
I recommend that anyone in this position, or wanting to learn more, should read Safeguarding Children with Autism by Wade Tidbury. This free resource from the National Autistic Society is a very useful guide, since it provides essential information and identifies the key principles and steps that should be taken whenever anyone has any safeguarding concerns about children with autism.
1 The National Autistic Society is the leading UK charity for people with Autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome) and their families. The National Autistic Society offers support, guidance and training to families and professionals. www.autism.org.uk
I have also seen an increase in the number referrals to CCPAS’s 24 hour Helpline from people seeking safeguarding advice about children with autism. Such issues can be a real challenge to unpick.
This article was first published in CCPAS’s Caring magazine, November 2015.
Claudia Bell BA (Hons), Dip.SW
Claudia’s early career was spent as a social work practitioner in a local authority child protection team. Prior to CCPAS, Claudia worked for an independent fostering agency and held a varietyof posts as a supervising social worker, team manager and reviewing manager. More recently, she has assessed, supervised and trained foster carers as well as taking a strategic management role in this area.
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