Autism doesn’t ask much of rest of us

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What you would do if you spoke to someone and they didn’t respond right away? Would you repeat your question? Speak more loudly? Or walk away from the conversation? Would you get annoyed?

More than half (56 per cent) of people in Scotland would think the person they are speaking to isn’t paying attention, and 24 per cent would think they are rude. This World Autism Awareness Week, I am asking you to consider that they could be autistic, and that making small changes to your behaviour to give them the time they need to process information could really help them to feel more comfortable, and Scotland to become more autism-friendly.

Being autistic means seeing, hearing and feeling the world in a different way to other people, and one aspect of this can be needing extra time to process information. It may take some autistic people longer than expected to answer questions, and they may speak slowly or be unable to maintain eye contact. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re rude.

More than three-quarters of the people we support said that the public doesn’t understand this about autism, with 44 per cent saying they rarely or never receive the time they need to process information.

Joan McCready, from West Dunbartonshire, sees this lack of understanding in the way people communicate with her son, Ronan. She says that when people don’t get a response straight away, they ask their question again, often rephrasing it. Joan can see Ronan struggle as he tries to process and answer not one but two questions.

This can be understandably frustrating. Ronan describes seeing a little red circle that turns hazy and pink and eventually becomes a red mist as he gets angrier and angrier. Joan and Ronan have worked together to understand his feelings and put a plan in place for coping in difficult situations: she has told him that before the red circle becomes a red mist he should take deep breaths, count backwards from 10, or step into another room. But what would really help Ronan – and all of the 58,000 autistic people living in Scotland – is simply for members of the public to understand more about autism.

We created our Too Much Information campaign because autistic people and their families told us that increased understanding is the single biggest thing that would improve their lives. The second phase of this award-winning campaign launches today, and we’re focused on letting people know about the small changes they can make to their behaviour to build a more autism-friendly Scotland. So here’s some advice from me: giving autistic people time to process information, using clear language, and being patient can make a world of difference. And it’s really not much to ask.

This World Autism Awareness Week has been a busy one for our charity because, as well as launching our campaign, we’ve also been touring the North East of the country and giving residents the chance to try the Virtual Reality experience we developed to increase understanding of autism.

The tour, which forms an important part of the Autism Friendly project we deliver with Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire health and social care partnerships, was launched by Mark McDonald MSP on Monday. He said that the cutting-edge technology, which lets users see the world through the eyes of an autistic child who is struggling with glaring lights, loud music and judgmental looks, is the closest people can get to understanding how it feels to be overwhelmed by seemingly everyday environments.

Union Square shopping centre, Tesco Banchory and Tesco Turriff have already hosted us this week; we’re at Scotrail’s Aberdeen station today, Inverurie station and Garioch Leisure Centre tomorrow and Sport Aberdeen’s Beach Leisure Centre and Linx Arena on Sunday. So, if you’re reading this in Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire, please do pay us a visit! And if you’re not, please do take some time during World Autism Awareness Week to learn about the condition that affects one in 100 people, and think about what you can do to be more autism friendly.

To find out more about the Too Much Information campaign, please visit http://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/tmi.aspx

Jenny Paterson, director of the National Autistic Society Scotland

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