Autism is a disorder of neural development characterised by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behaviour (APA, 2000). However, epidemiological studies have shown that autism is not, as Kanner (1943) first thought, a unique and separate condition occurring in children of otherwise typical development but that it is closely related to a range of developmental conditions. Given this high degree of variation among individuals on the autism spectrum, appropriate interventions and supports will be tailored on a case by case basis.

The universal characteristic that seems to both moderate and mediate in how autism affects an individual’s well-being and behaviour is stress and coping. There is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that while individuals with autism may experience stress in typical ways, identified stressors and coping styles may vary greatly from that of typically developing individuals (Goodwin, Groden, Velicer, Lipsitt, Baron and Hofmann 2006).

The Atlass programme takes a more holistic approach acknowledging the person’s behaviour in the context of the service and/or family. Numerous studies have identified that carer stress plays a significant role in episodes of challenging behaviour and can mediate within a stressful encounter (Baker et al. 1997; Hauser-Cram et al. 2001; Donovan 1989; Dumas et al 1991). Moreover, Rose & Rose (2005) have noted the impact that stress in staff working for services with people with autism can have a significant impact on how that staff group interpret and respond to challenging behaviour, which ultimately affects the development, implementation and monitoring of both care and education plans.

The Atlass programme was developed in response to this growing awareness of the role that stress plays in the onset and maintenance of challenging or difficult episodes, and the impact it has on people’s lives. By acknowledging developmental difference the Atlass programme teaches practitioners to examine stress and coping in themselves, the people they support and their carers. To that end the Atlass approach teaches participants how to develop and implement Stress Reduction Plans for individuals taking account of the transaction between the person, their relationships and their environment.

A growing number of both voluntary and public sector organisations who support and provide services for complex and vulnerable people, are adopting this way of working and conceptualizing systems of support from a stress reduction perspective; as such they have found the Atlass approach helpful in responding to the needs of individuals, their families and the staff who offer support.

As the Atlass programme has developed, we have enhanced the training programme and have now developed a Masterclass for organisations to augment their knowledge and understanding of the role of stress in people’s lives.