Tina Waltz is the Support Lead for The Roses, an Autism Accredited service run by Hightown Housing Association, providing supported living for people with Autism and Learning Disabilities. Tina has worked at the service since it opened 15 years ago.
Picture the scene. You see a man shouting. He’s with a woman who seems to be trying to calm him down. Are they a couple? Is she in danger? What should you do?
It can be a difficult decision but take a moment to assess the situation. Is the woman he is with supporting him?
My female colleagues and I have often been out with male service users who are autistic and have learning disabilities and someone has, without asking, stepped in to intervene and made the situation worse.
Of course, it’s not always easy to know what’s happening. That’s why we came up with the idea to carry cards to hand out to people which say ‘the person I’m supporting has autism and learning disabilities’ and contact details for our service. It means the Support Worker can focus on supporting the service user rather than spending time explaining the situation to other people. The card has the phone number for managers at our service so they can discuss it if they do have any concerns.
The cards are also useful for other situations. Occasionally a service user might say or do something that people perceive as rude and they become offended. Sometimes we use a holding technique while walking with a service user and it can look like we are marching them along and people question us about it.
My advice is to follow the lead of the person supporting the service user. If we need your help, we will ask. If you do want to stand and watch to check they are ok, please take a step back as an audience can make things worse when someone with autism and / or a learning disability is in distress.
Sometimes it’s not just what people say, it can be a look or someone muttering under their breath. For example, I was recently with a service user at the bank in a long queue. By the time it was our turn, she went through her usual routine of shaking hands with staff and saying hello. A man behind us in the queue swore as he thought we were taking too long. It really upset her as she could sense it was directed at her.
People often say that people with autism don’t do empathy. They do, it’s just they can’t always translate it. They still notice subtle things like body language and the hormones people release.
It’s important to say that lots of people are really nice - if we go to a shop or café and a member of staff is helpful and understanding, we always make sure we send them a compliment.
It really is the simple things like showing patience and kindness to someone with autism or a learning disability which can make such a big difference to their day.