Simon Robinson works for Barnardo’s Intensive Behaviour Support Service and has over 25 years’ experience of working people who have disabilities.

Simon’s presentation focused on the challenges he has faced whilst working to safeguard children with disabilities and autism. He hoped his presentation would be thought provoking and relevant to those who work in the safeguarding sector.

Safeguarding those with disabilities

Simon began his presentation by discussing the fact that, in general, safeguarding policy and procedure guidelines offer very few mentions of how to protect children with disabilities. Although it can be argued that this is to ensure all children are safeguarded equally, regardless of condition, Simon argued that children with disabilities needed special consideration.

Simon then spoke about his background and how the world of safeguarding had changed in the 25 years he had worked in the sector. He spoke of how it used to be that there were institutions where people with disabilities would be ‘looked after’. When Simon began working in safeguarding, he would work with people to transition them out of these institutions and into communities where they could live more independent lives. Despite the good intentions and mostly positive effects, one major negative of this has been that people were moved from a place where they had a routine and friends to an area where they had to adjust and meet with strangers. The safeguarding lessons learnt from this have been invaluable.

The meeting was advised that the most authoritative and widely quoted research about how to safeguarding children with disabilities was based on research from 1994-1995. Although the work was done by Sullivan and Knutson in 2000, it was based on information collected a few years prior to this. Simon emphasised that safeguarding practice had moved on so much since this work was done and what they classified as a ‘disability’ was very different to our definition today. Further work needed to be done to reflect this and provide practitioners with updated best practice guidance to refer to.

Defining disability

Simon discussed how he defines disability and the distinct differences he draws between being ‘learning disabled’ and having ‘a learning difficulty’. He defined a learning disability as having an IQ of less than 70, with different levels of disability:

  • Mild: IQ of around 70. The person is able to lead a fairly independent life, with a family and full time job. Small amounts of support needed from time to time.
  • Moderate: The person needs more support to get through life and will have to be visited by a carer every day. They can’t be left alone for too long but, with support, they can lead a fulfilling life.
  • Severe: The person can never be left alone, needing constant care and support. It can be a difficult topic to discuss with parents especially.

Child development

Simon spoke of how he talks to parents about child development and introduced the concept of ‘global development delay’, a situation where you know something is not quite as it should be and you don’t know why. Simon uses this phrase until a child is 5, at which point he switches to using ‘learning disability’. This is because ‘global development delay’ implies a child will eventually ‘catch up’ in their learning and development but after reaching the age of 5 this is unlikely. Whilst all children start at the same point, learning disabled children develop slower which means that, as the age gap widens, the child falls further behind. Parents may see this as their child deteriorating but it is simply that they can’t develop at the same rate as a fully cognitive child.

There is only so much someone can learn, disability or not, and everyone will hit their level eventually. This idea is a slight taboo with disabled children. There’s an idea that, with the right support, they can achieve anything and lead a fully fulfilling life but this is not always the case. They will hit a limit too where, regardless of support, they will be unable to do certain things.

The dangers of misdiagnosing learning disabled children, and thinking they are more cognitive than they actually are, was discussed. It can be easy to think a child is only mildly disabled when they seem to understand what you are saying but in reality they are severely disabled and have no comprehension of what is being said to them. It’s crucial not to assume too much understanding from a child.

The dangers of misdiagnosing learning disabled children, and thinking they are more cognitive than they actually are, was discussed. It can be easy to think a child is only mildly disabled when they seem to understand what you are saying but in reality they are severely disabled and have no comprehension of what is being said to them. It’s crucial not to assume too much understanding from a child.

Physical disability

Simon then focussed on physical disabilities and the challenges this presents for the child and wider family. He explained that, although it was obviously demanding on the family to provide constant support, it was manageable because supplying care can be done in a structured manner and the care givers can follow a set schedule of support. Whilst tiring, it is at least a routine you can get used to. Caring for someone with a learning disability or autism, however, can be very difficult as the challenges can vary day to day.

Defining autism

After a quick break, Simon began the second half of his presentation by introducing and defining autism, which he called the ‘invisible disability’. He spoke of the spectrum and 3 broad types:

  • Very locked in: Minimal social interaction and with a clear disability.
  • Middle spectrum: Tend to repeat the same things said but have good language and engagement.
  • ‘High functioning’ Asperger’s: Tend to be able to engage well and not obvious that they have a disability

Children with ‘high functioning’ Asperger’s can have the most difficulty socialising because it’s difficult to see that they’re disabled as they look ‘ok’. Simon explained that if you are obviously disabled then people are more understanding and less critical. If you appear ‘normal’ however, people are more hostile if you do something outside of the social norm.

Triad of Impairments

Following his definitions, Simon introduced the ‘triad of impairments’ concept and explained each of them in turn.

He began by speaking about social interaction and the difficulties autistic people face with this. We judge it from a non-autistic point of view and take social norms for but this is not the case for autistic people. A classic example of this is personal space, a concept that is never taught because people are just expected to know it. Autistic people don’t understand this social rule and often get abused for it, even though they have not done anything wrong.

This was followed by a discussion about the difficulties with social communication and again social norms that we take for granted. Autistic children can be convinced that someone is their ‘friend’ but then get into trouble when this person convinces them to do things that they shouldn’t. The autistic person is giving the signals that they know what they’re doing but in reality they don’t. They also take phrases very literally and don’t really understand metaphors.

A final explanation was given about difficulties with social imagination. This focussed on how people with autism struggle to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective and understand that other people may have different thoughts and feelings to their own. Being able to engage in interpersonal or imaginative play is something else that someone with autism may have trouble with.

Differences in boys and girls

For boys, it can be more obvious to spot the signs of autism as they will act out more when they are overstressed. Girls are more difficult however. The primary drive of autistic girls can be to study people and try to look ‘normal’. Girls act inward, which means that it is not always obvious that something is wrong. This can be dangerous as red flags for autism can include self-harm and eating disorders, though this is not always the case. A complete obsession with food and calorie counting can be quite autistic, though not always.

This difference in difficulty of spotting autism in girls and boys is represented in the contrast of diagnosis time. On average, girls take 30 years longer to be diagnosed with autism than boys. This means a woman can go through a large portion of her life not knowing she is autistic, meaning that she has missed out on support that could have helped her.

A shift in attitude

Simon ended his presentation by calling for further education about how to interact with people with autism. This would help create a shift away from a world where autistic people are seen as ‘broken’ and instead to a world where they are seen as ‘different’. Children with autism need be to given the opportunities to get to the same places as everyone else, just by a different journey.

The Safeguarding Children e-Academy at Virtual College offers a number of online safeguarding training courses, including training on Working with Children with Disabilities.


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