The diagnosis of autism has risen rapidly, but thankfully, so have our efforts to understand the condition and integrate those with autism into society.
Autism, a lifelong condition that involves problems with communication and social interaction, plus restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns, is one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental conditions in children and young adults.
2012 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 115,400, or 0.5 per cent, of the Australian population have autism – a staggering 79 per cent increase on the 2009 figures. It’s estimated that the annual support costs of people with autism exceed $7 billion.
Severity ranges from high functioning or less severe autism, where people with autism generally have normal to high IQs but struggle with social situations, to more severe autism, where learning difficulties are part of the equation.
A number of programs, events and initiatives are helping Curtin University researchers find ways to more fully incorporate people with autism into society.
Jeremy Marriott from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology is a sessional lecturer at Curtin University and runs a mobile private practice which treats challenging behaviours of children with disabilities, such as severe autism, in their natural environments.
He says this increase in the number of people with autism is possibly due to changes in diagnostic methods, not diet, immunisation or other factors often blamed by non-research groups.
“Diagnosis can be difficult as the spectrum is so wide and the variances vast,” Marriott says.
“Autism is still a relatively new condition according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and in the most recent manual, the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria has changed significantly.”
Marriott, who has worked as a disability carer and teacher’s aide for more than 20 years, is finishing a PhD titled Music, Arousal and Self-Injurious Behaviour: A 3-Stage Mediating Model for Children with Low Functioning Autism.
His research involved collaborating with pianist David Helfgott to develop music to soothe children with severe autism.
As part of the research, Marriott collected saliva samples, tested them for stress levels and found that cortisol, a hormone, and alpha amylase, a protein enzyme, were significantly lowered when participants listened to the music.
Marriott hopes his research can be used to help children with autism and make a difference to their lives once they become adults.
“The approach could be used in any controlled setting, such as the doctor’s office or dentist, or other environments where people with autism experience high levels of anxiety,” he says.
Research is also being carried out through Curtin Autism Research Group, a collaborative collection of academics, PhD and honours students, and volunteers from the general public looking at ways to incorporate people with autism into the workforce.
It’s an important area of study, with the labour participation rate for people with autism at 42 per cent, half that of people without autism or other disabilities.
Professor Torbjorn Falkmer, School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, leads the group and says creating opportunities for adults with autism to join the workforce is beneficial from a societal and economic perspective and that people with autism have some wonderful skills to contribute to the workforce.
“It’s all about finding different talents and building the potential of these workers,” Falkmer says.
“For example, people with autism are generally great at analysing data, however there are challenges. If they get stuck on a task they can sometimes be stressed. “
“Whilst attention to detail, focus and task delivery is superb, not to mention their work ethics, flexibility is not a strong point of people with autism. However, you can mitigate this with foresight and planning.”
Curtin Autism Research Group is part of the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC), the world’s first national, cooperative research effort focused on studying autism in three stages: diagnosis, education and adult life.
There are seven Australian universities involved in the eight year, $104 million project and Professor Falkmer’s group is looking at ways people on the autism spectrum can successfully transition to post school life, participate in higher education, further training and employment, and experience improved health and wellbeing.
The main focus is on longitudinal studies and randomised controlled trials and Professor Falkmer says there is a range of approaches being used.
Eye tracking and electroencephalography (EEG), which detects electrical activity in the brain, are being used together to test cognition processes.
Newer testing methods such as magnetoencephalography (MEG) look at the brain cortex instead of electrical activity and allow for the development of games that use biofeedback to gauge and reward players for face recognition and eye contact, two things that people with autism find difficult.
Curtin University has also been integral in the launch of the Academy for Software Quality Assurance (AASQA), aimed at leveraging the unique skills of people with autism for the software testing market.
AASQA and the Australian Computer Society Foundation have developed Australia’s first information technology internship designed for people with autism and Bankwest is on board as employer.
AASQA Deputy Director, Curtin’s Associate Professor Tele Tan, says this industry approach is needed to ensure younger people with autism are given the chance to gain fulfilling employment while filling gaps in the Australian information and communications technology industry.
“There’s a natural link between people with autism and software testing,” Tan says.
“We noticed employment issues for graduates with autism – even with qualifications they couldn’t get jobs, due to poor performance at job interviews which is a huge obstacle.
“We want employers to see the merits of employing people with autism.”
These merits include attention to detail, highly developed problem solving skills and a tenacity to go through computer codes with a fine-toothed comb.
However issues surrounding communication and work expectations can arise for employers.
“AASQA has also set up procedures for educating employers on how to understand and care for staff with autism, enabling optimum job design processes and assisting in long term employee retention,” Tan says.
So far, three interns have been employed by Bankwest as undergraduate software testers.
One of the interns, Michael New, says his job is generally quite time consuming as it involves a lot of manual testing but he’s gained a lot of confidence from it.
“My job at Bankwest involves working within a team to test various Bankwest systems and ensuring that they perform as expected,” New says.
“When they don’t perform as expected, it’s my and my team’s job to identify why and escalate the problem to the relevant team.
“Three weeks in, and I am working on a project to automate a testing procedure. By automating this process human error can be mitigated as well as time and manpower.”
New also appreciates the office environment, where he is encouraged to work with other interns but on their own terms.
“I like that I’m not suffocated by a small cubicle. Instead I share a table with my fellow team members.”
New’s experience is one that researchers say they want to see more of.
“People have to recognise autism as a disability and get over the stereotypes,” Marriott says.
“I want to celebrate diversity in autism. Everybody is different.”