YOU may not know it but 2 April is World Autism Awareness Day. This is also the day I will begin a 300-mile walk across Scotland on behalf of Scottish Autism to help raise awareness and understanding about this condition (and hopefully lots of money in the process).
It is estimated that autism affects one in 100 people, which means that there are around 50,000 people in Scotland living within what is known as the autism spectrum. People with the condition are affected in different ways with some requiring only limited support upon diagnosis while others need on-going care and attention throughout their lives. While there is no cure for autism, by promoting greater awareness and generating more financial resources it is possible to improve the lives of many of the people who live with it.
I have a very personal link to this. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism which I believe has been at the root of much of the extreme and sometimes erratic behaviour that has been an ongoing part of my life. My own form of Asperger’s has also meant that I’ve had to place trust in others in managing my business affairs, a situation which has left me open to fraud and financial abuse.
My daughter Lucie, who is now a young adult, was also diagnosed with the condition as a child. Although I knew that as a newborn baby there was something wrong, it took several years until medical professionals were able to properly assess that she had autism. While she has had some care and support for her condition I feel that much more could be done to help in her own development if we had the resources available.
Autism can often lead to social isolation which, without proper diagnosis and appropriate follow-up care, can create what seems like a never-ending cycle of mental health issues. In my own experience, I have been sectioned and completely isolated in care facilities which caused a total deterioration in both my emotional and physical situation. In just the last year, while in a mental health facility, I declined to the point that I was physically incapacitated and unable to walk. Having moved on from that low point, I am now delighted to be preparing for the 300-mile trek across the country which, among other things, I am also treating as a key part of my recovery.
As an adult living with autism I have been fortunate to be able to develop a career through my art. While there are others, mainly those with Asperger Syndrome, who can also enjoy success in a range of careers, many people who live with the condition, including my own daughter, don’t have the ability to look after themselves, which is why so much more needs to be done.
There are some encouraging signs. The Scottish Government announced their strategy for autism in 2011 and has put several million pounds towards addressing some of the inequalities that many living with the condition are faced with. However, we need to promote wider awareness of what autism is all about so we can argue for more resources in helping those affected by the condition.
Through my walk from Aberdeen to Ayrshire I am keen to help Scottish Autism in its important work, focused on improving the quality of life for people living with autism to enable them to maximise opportunities and become valuable members of their community. A healthy lifestyle combined with creative arts is often the key to personal wellbeing and reducing anxiety for everyone – including individuals with autism – and therefore walking across Scotland is an ideal way to highlight this point.
I hope the walk and the events we are planning in some of the communities I will visit will make a positive impact in putting autism on the map. While I have a very personal connection to this condition I am doing this to help the many thousands of others who live with autism. Hopefully we will see a rise in consciousness to the point that every day will be World Autism Awareness Day. «
• Peter Howson is an artist and campaigner for autism. To support his walk on behalf of the charity Scottish Autism visit www.scottishautism.org