29th March to 4th April is autism awareness week. This is a global week designed to improve people’s understanding of autism and we thought we would join in!
This week we’ll share some stories about some of our autistic Scouts and some advice around how to provide the best environment and support so that autistic children and young people can join in with Scouts.
We’ll start with a very brief bit about language. We follow the National Autistic Society’s guidance on how to talk about autism and they have a full guide here. In summary, we have autistic Scouts rather than Scouts who have autism. People don’t suffer from autism, they are just autistic.
It may seem like it doesn’t make much of a difference what we say but it’s important to realise it’s autistic people themselves who have chosen these phrases and so it is important we get this right. Because of this you should find out what the young person and their family use to describe themselves – for example if they prefer to refer to a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome then you use that.
It’s also important to know that there is an autism spectrum – just like all of us in our own way, no two autistic people are the same. As one of our parents says “if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person”!
We don’t talk about ‘high functioning’ or ‘severely autistic’ we talk about the individual, specific strengths and support needs of each young person. Our starting point with all our young people is that they can participate in everything and achieve anything – with individualised adjustments and personalised support.
So, on that note, the first of our wee bits of advice for making Scouting autism friendly is about finding out about the young person who is joining your section. Click on each of the points below for more detail.
Get to know the young person first
the key to providing an inclusive activity is first knowing what support you need to provide without making any assumptions. In our group we visit every potential new Scout at home before they come down. We find that 20 minute chat is invaluable in learning what adaptations we can put in place and what strengths the young person has that we can build on.
Don't be scared to ask questions
parents and carers are very used to it by now and would prefer you asked rather than guessed. There is a useful template on what to ask on the Scouts website here and also some great resources from Girlguiding which you might find helpful.
Write everything down and then review it with a view to creating a personalised plan
Share it with all your leaders in confidence so everyone knows what to look out for. If you have any Young Leaders think about a version you can share with them too – they may be the most useful part of your team in providing a little one to one support during activities.
Keep your information up to date
don’t assume that the young person will be the same forever – often key moments of transition (such as primary to secondary school or puberty) result in changes in needs – so keep asking questions and update your support plan as you go.
Think about the impact of Scouts on the young person too
Remember Scouts may be the place where the young person comes out of their shell or develops skills more than anywhere else – so remember to feed back to parents/carers about anything that you have noticed too – this may be really helpful to pass onto school or other activities to improve their support plans.
Ask for help at any point
Most parents/carers would rather you asked them questions or raised any concerns regularly rather than potentially storing things up for a big moment which comes unexpectedly for all parties.
Later in the week we’ll share our second instalment which has some tips on running activities and nights away for autistic Scouts.
Our first young person’s story is from Mitchell, who is 10 and a member of our Cub Pack. Here his mum reflects on his time in Scouts:
“Mitchell has always struggled to fit into clubs. I have lost count of the number of times that he started something but very quickly felt ostracised or unable to participate. It can be very lonely when you are autistic. Struggling to be understood, not quite getting the rules of social engagement ‘quite right’ – it can leave you feeling helpless and worried that other kids will just exclude your child.
“Watching your child be sad and unhappy is the worst feeling for any parent. Thankfully we found Scouts where the volunteers reassured us that Mitchell would have a place. Given our past experience we were apprehensive and worried about how he would be supported, but we should not have been. The Scouts gave Mitchell a full experience and exceed all our hopes and dreams.
“Mitchell LOVES Scouts and it is the only thing this year he has asked to go back to. Through Scouts he has learned so many new skills and made new friends. We have seen Mitchell’s social skills in particular blossom and his pride in completing activities and gaining badges has boosted his self-confidence. Through Scouts Mitchell has the gift of belonging to something. For us that is priceless”.