Dispelling the myths and stereotypes surrounding a 'hidden disability'

Educating the public about autism to dispel myths and stereotypes surrounding the "hidden disability" is a passion for Pete Hughes,  the chief executive of Leeds Autism Services.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 6:00 am
Pete Hughes, chief executive of Leeds Autism Services. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mr Hughes, who is on a mission to raise awareness and understanding of autism, said although most people have heard of it, very few people actually understand what it is.

"As a result autistic people are often misunderstood and have limited access to opportunities which many of us may take for granted," said Mr Hughes, who spoke to the YEP during World Autism Awareness Week.

Mr Hughes, a trained mental health nurse, has told of the most common misconceptions he has encountered in his 20 year career with Leeds Autism Services.

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Pete Hughes, chief executive of Leeds Autism Services, outside Ashlar House in Chapel Allerton. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe

"I’ve worked with over 100 autistic people and their families, which has given me a really broad understanding of autism and how we can improve the lives of autistic people," he said.

"I consider myself extremely lucky to work with such an amazing group of people - it really does feel like I’ve found my place in the world, rather than just doing a job

"I’m really passionate about the work we do, especially around promoting autism understanding and inclusion."

Pete Hughes, chief executive of Leeds Autism Services, pictured (left) with a service user outside Ashlar House in Chapel Allerton. Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe

"I believe that educating the public about autism is one of the key aspects to how we improve the lives of autistic people, so we’re always keen to tackle some of the common myths and stereotypes which people face on a day-to-day basis.”

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

Mr Hughes said one common misconception is that everyone with autism has a special ability.

"This myth probably comes from the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, but it simply isn’t true," he said.

"Of course, everyone has something they are good at, and some people really do have fantastic talents.

"This is the same for autistic people as it is for everyone else.

"Autistic people do process information differently though, which means they often have skills and talents that are different to those of non-autistic people."

He said another misconception is that autistic people can’t make friends or develop meaningful relationships.

"While it’s true that some autistic people might have difficulty making and maintaining relationships, it is often a lack of understanding and inclusion which leads to these difficulties.

"We need to try and educate ourselves about what it means to be autistic, and treat people as equals; autism really isn’t anything to be afraid of."

Mr Hughes said another myth is that autistic people can’t work or hold down a job.

"While it’s true that unemployment is a huge issue for autistic people, most are more than capable of being dedicated and productive employees, " he said.

"In fact, some companies are now recognising the benefits of the different skill sets that autistic people bring to the workplace, and are actively seeking autistic workers."

He said some people with autism who appear to have good communication skills may be seen as "less autistic," but they may have learned to hide their autistic traits.

"This is known as ‘masking’ and it can be exhausting for people to maintain," he said.

"Just because someone doesn’t look autistic, it doesn’t mean that they are not facing the same degree of difficulty as other people on the spectrum.

"Autism really is a hidden disability, and the chances are we all know someone who is autistic, even if we don’t realise it."

Mr Hughes urged people to educate themselves about autism.

He said: "No two autistic people are the same, and each individual is affected differently by their autism.

"Getting a better understanding of what autism is, and what it feels like to be autistic, helps develop our empathy, and breaks down the barriers which exclude autistic people.

"It’s also a really interesting subject to learn about."

Mr Hughes said: "Isolation and being excluded are huge issues faced by autistic people, so just relax and get to know the person.

"Autism isn’t a disease, it’s a different way of experiencing the world."

The National Autistic Society says one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.

Leeds Autism Services, which was established in 1985, employs a total of 85 staff and helps 65 people with autism.

It provides community support along with educational and day services at centres in Hunslet and Armley.

The charity also runs Ashlar House in Chapel Allerton, which is a permanent home for seven adults with autism.

The YEP is running a series of stories each day during World Autism Awareness Week as we focus on the lives of people in Leeds with autism.

For more information and to contribute to charity Leeds Autism Services, go to www.las.net.uk

For more details on World Autism Awareness Week, go to www.autism.co.uk