Gordon Wallace: Understanding difficulties facing autistic people

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THE little things can help make a difference, says Gordon Wallace

Specsavers in Glasgow has been named Scotland’s first autism-friendly optician after staff from the Trongate store teamed up with the National Autistic Society Scotland to learn about the condition and achieve the autism-friendly award.

This is only the second time the award has been granted in Scotland. The first was to Scottish Parliament last year, and the Macrobert Arts Centre is working towards achieving it. Aberdeenshire Council has also announced that six of its buildings and facilities will also take on the challenge as part of its bid to become Scotland’s first autism-friendly region.

Scotland is making progress towards becoming an autism-friendly nation and I am proud to say I have played my part, visiting the Specsavers store and helping staff to understand why having an eye test could be difficult or even distressing. The team was very friendly and flexible, and they seemed keen to learn from a real expert – an autistic person!

My autism has made me creative, and I have an interest in everything. I am a talented artist, and I regularly read books and Wikipedia pages on many diverse subjects – from aardvarks to ZZ Top. My unique mind (wired up differently due to autism) has allowed me to see the connections between seemingly unrelated subjects. Because of this ability to see the invisible threads that connect everything (and my quiet exterior) you could call me a closet radical.

I am a spectacle-wearer and I haven’t had much fuss with eye tests, but I can imagine that some autistic people may have problems understanding the process and having an alien device placed on their face, especially those who have never worn glasses before. And, of course, some may not be able to explain to the optician which lens is best.

An important thing to understand about autism is that it can mean people have a lack of “filter” for their senses. For example, when you’re in a busy restaurant talking to the person in front of you, the “neurotypical” brain is able to filter out the background noise, allowing you hear the person you are talking to more clearly. Many autistic people can’t do that – they hear everything at the same volume, making conversations difficult in noisy environments. This lack of filter applies to all senses. Autistic people can have sensitive eyes, meaning they hate bright sunlight or florescent lighting. Their sense of touch dictates what clothes they wear. Many (including me) become “fussy eaters” because they’re not use to the tastes and textures of many foods (my diet has become more varied in the past decade thanks to much personal effort). With these hypersensitive senses a new, confusing environment can be a nightmare.

I explained to the team at Specsavers that having music in the waiting room could be distracting, and they said that can easily turn it down or even off on request. They also explained that they can adjust the temperature in the test room.

Background noise, or being in a room that is too hot or cold, may seem like minor annoyances, but these things could be really upsetting for an autistic person.

The National Autistic Society Scotland describes that feeling of being overloaded as getting “too much information”.

Of course, there are sensory challenges that Specsavers can’t do anything about. The store has large windows that flood the place with sunlight, and there seems to be constant sirens coming from the busy road outside. But the point of the autism-friendly awards is for organisations to do what they can. It’s about reasonable adjustments – neither autistic people nor the National Autistic Society Scotland expect staff to become experts on autism or the walls of listed buildings to be knocked down! We just want our needs to be understood and considered.

Helping Specsavers has made me see that more organisations can and should become autism friendly. In Scotland, around 230,000 people and their families are affected by the condition. We want to go to the cinema and travel by bus. We even want to have eye tests! But sometimes we need a little support to do so. The process of applying for the award is straightforward, the adjustments suggested won’t be time-consuming or expensive, and the National Autistic Society Scotland knows lots of people like me who are happy to explain what life is like for an autistic person, and how things could be friendlier.

• Gordon Wallace, volunteer at the National Autistic Society Scotland. For more information about the Autism Friendly Award, please contact daniel.cadey@nas.org.uk