The IFoA has a strong commitment to supporting our members and is working to create an organisation that promotes neurodiversity. We have worked with the National Autistic Society (the UK's leading charity for autistic people and their families) to create a practical guide to support our members who want to learn more about autism.
You may be an autistic member of the IFoA, work with autistic colleagues, have autistic family and friends or you may be reading this wondering if you are autistic. The aim of these pages is to help raise awareness of autism, provide support to autistic members, and members who work with, or line-manage autistic employees, as well as providing more information and guidance to autistic people considering a career in the actuarial profession.
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. According to the World Health Organisation, the prevalence of autism appears to be increasing globally (WHO).
Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. Like everyone, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses as well as personality traits and learned habits. Below is a list of differences autistic people may share:
- Social communication - Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Some autistic people are unable to speak or have limited speech, while other autistic people have very good language skills but struggle to understand sarcasm or tone of voice.
- Social interaction - Autistic people often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions.
- Repetitive and restrictive behaviour - With its unwritten rules and often illogical changes, the world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people. This is why they often prefer to have routines so that they know what is going to happen and can plan for the specific situation. Changes can also be very distressing for autistic people and make them very anxious, which can impact on many aspects of life.
- Over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch - Autistic people may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pressure. Autistic people can also struggle with internal sensations such as pain and emotion, as well as having difficulties with balance and spatial awareness of their own body. These sensitivities can have a considerable impact on a person’s behaviour and ability to concentrate, particularly when the person is subjected to a prolonged sensory input such as ones encountered in the workplace.
- Highly focused interests or hobbies - Many autistic people have intense and highly focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong and bring an immense amount of joy to autistic people. These interests can be useful topics to encourage an autistic person to talk about if they are in a distressed state to help calm them, but within the workplace there may need to be clear boundaries about when/how long an interest can be discussed for with colleagues/clients.
- Extreme anxiety - Anxiety is a real difficulty for many autistic adults, particularly in social situations or when facing change/an unpredictable scenario.
- Meltdowns and shutdowns - When everything becomes too much for an autistic person, they can go into meltdown or shutdown. These are very intense and exhausting experiences that are an adrenaline-based response to extreme anxiety or sensory overload. It may take an autistic person a long time to recover from a meltdown as a lot of energy is expended. It’s often best to allow the person time away from others in a quiet, dark room where they can rest (similar to when someone has a migraine).
For further information on autism, please visit: What is autism
Different names for autism and individual profiles
Over the years, different terms have been used to describe autism. This reflects the different autism profiles presented by individuals, and the diagnostic manuals and tools used.
Terms that have been used include autism, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism spectrum condition (ASC), atypical autism, classic autism, Kanner’s autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), high-functioning autism (HFA), Asperger syndrome and pathological demand avoidance (PDA).
Because of recent and upcoming changes to the main diagnostic manuals, 'autism spectrum disorder' (ASD) is now likely to become the most commonly given diagnostic term. However, clinicians will often still use additional terms to help to describe the particular autism profile presented by an individual.
The National Autistic Society uses the term ‘autistic’ – particularly when talking about or to, adults in that group. We also use ‘on the autism spectrum’ as a default way of describing people on the autism spectrum. Research published in the Autism journal in 2015 looked at the preferences of people on the autism spectrum, their families, friends and professionals around the language used to describe autism. The findings confirmed that there is no single term that everyone prefers. However, they suggest a shift towards more positive and assertive language, where people see autism as an integral part of their identity.. For further information please visit: How to talk about autism.
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