Friday, April 23, 2010

The Autistic Me: One Year On

Last night I watched The Autistic Me: One Year On, one of a recent rash of programmes about the autistic spectrum, most of which have been pretty much OK.

It updated viewers on the fortunes of Alex, Tom and Olly, three young autistic men. Alex (pictured) is in his early 20s, has Asperger sydrome, works part-time and wants a girlfriend. He found one through internet correspondence last year, and he and Kirsty - also autistic - have developed a successful, if unconventional, long-term relationship. What is quite touching is that their absence of social inhibitions has allowed them to be authentically romantic with each other. Social protocol and embarrassment is evidently not all it is cracked up to be.

A year ago, Tom was perhaps the least likeable of the three, a surly teenager who had to stay in a residential unit when his family could no longer cope. And at the start of the update programme, he was still surly, and was distressed by his parents' recent decision to up sticks and move 300 miles to Cornwall. It is hard enough making friends when you are autistic, but having to start all over again at the age of 16 was truly daunting. However, Tom managed it, flourished through a college course in music, and is now in a band with peers who accept him for who he is.

Olly is a warm, funny and clearly very competent high-functioning autistic (and diabetic) twenty-something. Having made a huge success of a temporary job at the British Library last year, he has struggled to find employment. Olly's update was less life-affirming than the other two, and shows the appalling discrimination that autistic people face from employers. Helped by some scheme to get work, Olly did a placement with Asda, excelled at the work, and was apparently promised a job ... only for Asda to keep him waiting without any contact for months on end and then offer him only 10 hours per week. He told them to poke it.

So there you go: With the support of friends, family and education, young autistic adults can contribute massively to society and have rewarding lives. But then bosses poke in and wreck it. And government schemes that claim to help disabled people into work seem instead to pander to thsoe bosses, supplying them with free workers for a period while demanding nothing meaningful in return.

Programmes like this give me a glimpse of my son Joe's potential future. Hopes and fears.

And I couldn't help but notice the guys' mothers too! Tom's appeared to have little faith in him, and was surprised when he achieved so much with music and friends. Alex's was devoted and loving, but seemed a little clingy, saying that she didn't want him to leave home and be independent. And Olly's was supportive and content that he lives in supported independent housing nearby, so is close but independent. And I don't mean any of those comments as judgemental as they probably come across, because we all do our best and none of us are perfect parents.

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