Jenny Paterson: Autism is no joke and it’s time for change

44 per cent of autistic people and their families sometimes dont go out because they are worried about how other people will react to them. Picture: Contributed
44 per cent of autistic people and their families sometimes dont go out because they are worried about how other people will react to them. Picture: Contributed
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‘Relaxed’ performances can help to change perceptions, writes Jenny Paterson

Last summer our charity was contacted by a mum who wanted us to know about a horrible experience she’d had at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She had taken her family, including her autistic son, to see an acclaimed children’s show and was surprised and disappointed to find that it included cruel jokes about autism. Her little boy was upset and, on receiving her call, I was angry. But this mum didn’t want to cause trouble for the performers or the venue. She just wanted them to understand more about autism, and consider the hurt their so-called jokes had caused. For that reason I will resist this opportunity to name and shame…

Recent research by the National Autistic Society Scotland has found that 44 per cent of autistic people and their families sometimes don’t go out because they are worried about how other people will react to them. They told us they are stared and tutted at in the street, and sometimes receive nasty comments from passing strangers. More than two thirds of the people we spoke to said that they feel socially isolated – and it’s no wonder when they are faced with such a negative response as they go about their lives.

It is unacceptable that autistic people are made to feel unwelcome anywhere in our society – and it’s especially unacceptable that this should happen at a world-class arts event, one of Scotland’s proudest attractions. I’m relieved to say that the team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society agree with me on this, and were really disappointed when I told them what had happened. They explained that their ambition is for the Fringe to be “the most inclusive open-access arts festival in the world”, and that being autism friendly is an important part of that.

Following that conversation, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society asked us if we’d like to work with them to take action. As a result we’re offering free workshops to help performers and venues learn how making small adjustments, such as reducing sound levels or softening lighting, can make a big difference to autistic audiences; and we hope this will lead to an increase in autism friendly (or “relaxed”) performances.

Autism friendly performances help to tackle the social isolation that many autistic people face by making it easier to access and enjoy the arts, but they don’t prevent unkind jokes being made about the condition, or put a stop to staring and tutting. That change in public attitude can only come through increasing understanding, and I believe that giving autistic people the opportunity to share their own experiences of their condition through art is an important part of achieving that. Flicking through this year’s Fringe programme I am pleased to see listings for shows like Guerilla Aspies and Cat Call that focus on autism from the point of view of individuals and families. In the coming years I hope we can work with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society to encourage inclusivity and accessibility for performers as well as audiences, and to support even more autistic people to take part in the Fringe.

The mum who shared her experience with us last summer didn’t want to leave her contact details, so I’ve never been able to thank her for kick-starting the fantastic relationship we now have with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. I also haven’t been able to let her know that I recently wrote to the performers and venue who upset her family to politely suggest they attend one of our workshops. More than 3,000 shows are taking place in almost 300 venues as part of this year’s Fringe and I want to reach out to them all, but I would take particular satisfaction from those performers and that venue – who I will not name or shame – becoming autism friendly.

There’s still time for Fringe performers and venue managers to attend a free workshop. To find out more, please visit edfringe.com/participants/your-time-at-the-fringe/fringe-central

• Jenny Paterson is director of the National Autistic Society Scotland