Kia Handley: [00:00:00] Today, I want to unpack a condition that affects at least one in 70 Australians, a condition that we hear about, that we might even judge but don't necessarily completely understand. Let's look right now at the autism spectrum. And to help me understand what this is and how we can better support people living with autism, I'm joined by Craig Smith. He's the school coordinator at the Aspect Hunter School. Craig, good morning.
Craig Smith: [00:00:25] Thanks so much for having me in.
Kia Handley: [00:00:27] And thank you for coming in. Autism has existed as a diagnosis in the medical world since about the 1940s. Do we... are we seeing more people aware of it now, though?
Craig Smith: [00:00:37] I think that's a good way to put it. We are seeing more awareness. And I think as a society, we're becoming more and more aware of the variants in different minds, in different ways of living-
Kia Handley: [00:00:48] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:00:49] ... in different people, um, as a society. So, certainly, awareness and acceptance of a whole range of conditions, including autism, feels like it's been increasing a great deal across the past couple of years.
Kia Handley: [00:01:00] Is that driven from the medical world like our diagnosis tools are better now?
Craig Smith: [00:01:04] I think it's coming from different directions. So, certainly, some of it is about improved diagnostic tools. We're getting better at picking up, um, the accuracy of what, um, people might have. There's something called diagnostic accretion, where people who were previously diagnosed with one condition, and now being more accurately diagnosed with autism. And, again, just as a society, I think we're becoming more, um, accepting of different, uh, ways of learning and different ways of working. And so that's playing into that space as well.
Kia Handley: [00:01:36] We, as individuals, are probably asking that question more as well from our medical professionals. We're more attuned to maybe what we should be looking for, and then going, "Hey, what's going on?"
Craig Smith: [00:01:45] Absolutely, and the criteria for those, um, diagnosis changed so much over time as we start to become more aware of what it is to be human and the variants involved, so yeah, absolutely.
Kia Handley: [00:01:58] I found it interesting to read this morning that 83% of Australians with an autism diagnosis are under the age of 25.
Craig Smith: [00:02:06] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Kia Handley: [00:02:07] Why do we see it so prevalent in our younger generations?
Craig Smith: [00:02:10] I think that ties into what we just talked about. It's certainly a reflection of, um, us as a society getting better at recognizing it earlier.
Kia Handley: [00:02:19] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:02:19] So, there are older people with autism very likely at the same, um, rate, the same ratios that we have, uh, with our young people but the tools, the awareness wasn't there, um, in time gone by but we are now in such an age where you've got, um, apps that diagnose [laughs] early developmental milestones.
Kia Handley: [00:02:40] Yeah.
Craig Smith: [00:02:40] You've got a lot more, um, comparing to... of the natural development of children in different spaces, social media, you know, showing different lives and different ways of living. I think we just... we are so attuned to what people are doing now, and the way that children are growing and developing. That's playing into that space of heightened awareness, um, which is, certainly, I think one of... one of the reasons we see, uh, such a high proportion of autism diagnosis in our young people.
Kia Handley: [00:03:08] Hmm. Are we seeing adults who maybe have lived with this for their life then starting to have that conversation so they have a better understanding as well?
Craig Smith: [00:03:17] Hugely-
Kia Handley: [00:03:18] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:03:18] ... and there are, uh... I was just having a chat to a lady the other week in her 50s, and she's just received a diagnosis. And she said, for me, uh, it was like receiving a textbook [laughs] that said, this is how your brain works.
Kia Handley: [00:03:31] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:03:32] This is why life has been the way that it has been with its, um, immense strengths in terms of her creativity, in terms of the way she's been able to apply herself to her interest, and also some of the challenges around her social needs and work relationships. So absolutely. I think people of all ages, um, are getting more accurate diagnosis of themselves all the time.
Kia Handley: [00:03:53] That must be such a liberating moment when you hear when you hear stories like that, but for individuals as well.
Craig Smith: [00:03:58] Absolutely. And I think it gives people a lot more agency about themselves, and who they are. And then they're able to, uh, you know, continue to build on their strengths as much as possible.
Kia Handley: [00:04:07] Does having this knowledge help all of us in the community as well understand a bit better or you think we're still a little bit slow when it comes to that?
Craig Smith: [00:04:13] I think we're getting better and better all the time. It's an industry... there is an Australian sociologist called Judy Singer, and she came up with the idea of neurodiversity about... so 25 years, uh, years back. And her idea was the more varied that ecosystems are, so if we think about the environment, the more varied those ecosystems are, the healthier they are, the more they flourish, the more they evolve. And she said the same too is for our society.
Kia Handley: [00:04:39] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:04:40] The more different brains we have, the more different personalities, um, the richer the society, the richer the sort of the ecosystem of being human. And I think we are coming to embrace that more and more, um, which we often talk about at the school at different brilliant... it's a brilliance that is different, but comes out in its own way and children, and that's something that we always want to be building on and, um, helping everyone make their potential.
Kia Handley: [00:05:05] It's how we deal with everyone who's young. We want to find their strengths and foster those instead of focusing on weaknesses because our strengths define where we're going to go in life and the great things we're gonna do.
Craig Smith: [00:05:14] And that should be the focus. A strength-based approach is embraced across all different fields now, and it's interesting even to look at the history of special education, when the first classes for children with autism, even if they weren't being diagnosed as that back in 1911... 1910, 1911. They were already having a strength-based approach saying what do these children love, how can we maximize that, how can we tie that into the general growth. And to think that we're still doing that now, um, shows that I think, at its core, we've probably always known, um, good ways of helping people to meet their potential.
Kia Handley: [00:05:48] Yeah.
Craig Smith: [00:05:49] It's just always about re-imagining ways of doing that in the current space.
Kia Handley: [00:05:53] It's 23 minutes past nine. You're with Kia Handley on ABC Newcastle Mornings. My guest is Craig Smith. He's from this... he's the school coordinator at the Aspect Hunter School. We're taking a look at ASD at autism spectrum disorder. Let's talk about that word spectrum, Craig. Uh, I think this is where sometimes it can become confusing for people. Why is that an important word when we talk about autism?
Craig Smith: [00:06:20] Yeah, it is an important word, and it can be confusing. The idea is that there is no one child who you can say, "Well, this is what autism looks like."
Kia Handley: [00:06:28] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:06:29] We always say, if you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism.
Kia Handley: [00:06:33] [laughs]
Craig Smith: [00:06:33] There is just such a variance that spectrum can cover a range of communication skills the child might have a range of, uh, social capacities, a range of sensory needs. It is such a wide spectrum and nothing is fixed.
Kia Handley: [00:06:49] Hmm.
Craig Smith: [00:06:49] So for some children, they might have particular difficulties with their social interactions in the morning. By the evening, they're an extrovert going out on the town and having a great time.
Kia Handley: [00:06:58] [laughs]
Craig Smith: [00:06:58] So the spectrum is always in flux. And it's a malleable thing. We see such immense growth, immense change, um, in children to, you know, find who they would like to be.
Kia Handley: [00:07:08] Within that spectrum, are there key characteristics that we see?
Craig Smith: [00:07:12] Yeah, the main characteristics that we, uh, see and that sort of tie into the diagnostic criteria are to do with, uh, social skills and social communication. So what is it that children are seeking from social situations, how they're interacting with others, what do they recognize about the facial expressions of others-
Kia Handley: [00:07:32] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:07:32] ... about their own capacity to express themselves. And we also look at, um, the special interests that students have. In some cases, um, they got the... in the diagnostic criteria, they talk about restricted interests where, um, someone may have something that they are particularly focused on and find it very hard to get off that track. And it may impact on their capacity for change and to be flexible. But then, I mean, we're always very open-minded about those things. You think on one hand, you can say, "Well, to have a restricted interest, um, sounds like a deficit," but we all know that we have passions.
Kia Handley: [00:08:09] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:08:09] We have things that we love. There's none of us who, um, don't have something that we would just stop everything to do and take a sick day from work and say, "I just want to stay home and do the thing I love." Um, so there's always ways of saying different things there. It's not always a negative deficit. We really have to look at how we have the strength-based approach.
Kia Handley: [00:08:30] I know that this is probably a hated question from your perspective, but it's one that I feel is asked a lot in the wider community, and that is what do we know that causes of autism?
Craig Smith: [00:08:39] The truth is that research is a very tricky area. The replicability of studies, the type of studies, the amount of, um, participants they can get in studies. Unfortunately, autism, um, has become a bit of a magnet for studies that might have only had three or four people involved, and then they make a very rash conclusion. It gets headlines online, and, suddenly, uh, we think that we have sort of found a particular trigger particular cause. The truth is that the jury is really out-
Kia Handley: [00:09:10] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:09:10] ... across many different spaces, um, with autism. We are progressively understanding the impact of change in the environment, and the complex interplay of those things. But there's nothing at this stage that we can really point to. For us, it's less about, um, the cause of autism, and more about the awareness and the acceptance of variants because that's really what we can make an impact on, and what we can, um, you know, turn our society into.
Kia Handley: [00:09:39] Well, we have conversations about vaccines, about pollutants, about external factors that may or may not have happened during a pregnancy. What damage does that do to the greater understanding and acceptance, I guess, of autism and people with autism?
Craig Smith: [00:09:54] Yeah, I think it sets up a misguided approach to recognizing the value of many different types of human. And I think there's no norm, there's no standard for what it is to be human. There's no gold standard of health in any regard. We want to accentuate the variance and what that adds to the society rather than trying to look for causes to demonize certain things. They're... we... that's not, for us, a healthy conversation. It certainly doesn't contribute to the success of the children that we're working with every day.
Kia Handley: [00:10:29] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:10:30] It's not about, um, thinking or what caused this or that. Certainly, we want the medical field to be doing all they can for everybody across society to recognize the way to be healthy, and, um, all the rest. But for us, it doesn't even enter our minds. It's-
Kia Handley: [00:10:46] Yeah.
Craig Smith: [00:10:46] ... about how do we maximize the success, um, the flourishing of all the people who we are working with and not just working with but, um, who worked with us. I think one of the big ideological, um, shifts of the past 30 years in these fields have been we want to work with people with autism in our schools, in our jobs, um, to have co-authorship, co-running of things with everybody, less expert models and more sharing. And that's really what we're going for.
Kia Handley: [00:11:17] On the other end of all this, we're seeing some amazing success stories of mostly coming from IT, from Silicon Valley, of Microsoft, and Apple, and Facebook, and Google, seeking out people with autism to work. But again, that is just one group of people. And that may not be what works for everyone. Not everyone with autism is gonna find a killer job [laughs] in IT or want that.
Craig Smith: [00:11:40] And I think that's true. And it... uh, we- we do have to be careful sometimes with stereotypes that we are shown with autism. A good example of this is, um, about girls and autism, in that, um, what we know about autism in many ways is what we know about boys with autism because the- what we looked for when... in autism, we found in boys.
Kia Handley: [00:12:02] Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Craig Smith: [00:12:03] Um, the research studies, we often got boys involved, and more and more, we're learning that what autism looks like in, say, girls can be very different in our understanding of how... of how to support that, of how to work with that. So when we have a particular idea about autism being, um, a high tech skill, and being in sort of Silicon Valley space, we think that is just one, uh, section of autism and doesn't reflect the immense variants that all of our, um, people have.
Kia Handley: [00:12:35] If we're all to take one thing away from this conversation, what would you like it to be today?
Craig Smith: [00:12:40] Yeah, uh, to recognize the immense potential of everybody in our society and how a society is most healthy when we have many different minds involved, and really see a strength-based approach to supporting that.
Kia Handley: [00:12:54] Craig, really appreciate you coming in and having this conversation with us this morning. Thank you so much for your time.
Craig Smith: [00:12:59] Thanks for having me.
Kia Handley: [00:12:59] That is Craig Smith. He's a school coordinator at the Aspect Hunter School.