‘She doesn’t look autistic’ – bias, and what we can do about it
Everyone carries unconscious bias to specific stimuli. Certain words conjure up images or ideas for individuals, depending on what they themselves have experienced in their lives. The problem with the term ‘unconscious bias’, is that it suggests something is inevitable, or that it can’t be changed through learning. At IMPOWER, we have decided to use ‘cognitive bias’ instead, a phrase which challenges us to observe those assumptions we make, and to think more actively about the impact they have.
Feeding this notion into how we work as a company is helping us to connect with each other better and to develop a collective sense of belonging as we grow more and more diverse. But it is also relevant to our client work, as it is usually centred around improving outcomes for citizens. Arguably it is those citizens with protected characteristics who experience more of this bias and are subject to often unhelpful assumptions about their lives.
One of our current clients is Lincolnshire County Council, who in turn are working closely with the Lincolnshire Parent and Carer Forum (LPCF), a large, proactive voluntary organisation representing the parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in the county. The LPCF are a vital partner for the council, influencing strategic decision making by providing insight into the lived experience of families navigating the SEND system. Together, the council and the LPCF are achieving remarkable positive impact on outcomes for children and young people with SEND.
In a recent online forum, members of the LPCF shared their experiences of SEND bias and stereotyping in society and the challenges this created. The most common assumption referenced by the group was regarding those disabilities and special educational needs that are not immediately visible. Comments made to these families included, ‘he looks normal, you just let him run wild’ and ‘she doesn’t look autistic’. Three separate parent/carers also reported being told that their own style of parenting was the ‘problem’ and that they simply need to be firmer and control their child’s behaviour.
This type of assumption is obviously problematic, not least in the pressure it places on family members who are already doing everything they can to support their child or young person in the most appropriate way. This bias is so prevalent it has even sparked discourse within the SEND community itself, with some families of children with visible disabilities being envied by others; one being told ‘at least you can see what’s wrong with your child.’
Every parent has the right to celebrate what’s right with their child, and should never have to defend something that’s perceived to be ‘wrong’. In talking to SEND families, the starting point for me is that each SEND parent/carer has the same aspirations for their child or young person as any other parent/carer would. They want their child to be happy, to enjoy life and to thrive. At the same time, SEND families – just like all families – are wonderfully unique, with their own individual set of challenges and strengths. So creating subgroups of SEND families based on assumptions about need or ability is unhelpful and only causes more difficulty and heartache.
This is why IMPOWER’s approaches to SEND, including Valuing SEND and our strengths-based approach, are vital to affecting positive change. Valuing SEND moves away from the default of discussing children and young people with SEND in terms of what they cannot do – a deficit model – and instead encourages parents and carers, practitioners and SEND professionals to think about the child more holistically, and also to focus on what can be done to help each individual thrive. In Lincolnshire this is leading to better outcomes and cost saving across the system.
It is through learning, listening, asking questions and being open to families in all their forms that we can make sure we don’t let our own biases cloud what’s in front of us. All of us need to be aware of the leaps the human mind can make when presented with a challenging word or concept, and to remember that our words can help or hurt real people and families. What we say can have a wider impact than we ever imagined.