Today is World Autism Awareness Day, an occasion designated by a UN General Assembly resolution which encourages its member states to raise awareness about autism, a condition that affects around one in 100 people.
April has also been designated as Autism Awareness month. To mark this, Scottish Autism has launched the Autism in Focus photography exhibitions in Dundee and Edinburgh which will be open all month. The aim of the exhibits is to portray the “real picture” of autism as depicted by 100 individuals and families from across Scotland.
It is probably fair to say that awareness of autism is at its highest ever level. Between stories in the media, portrayals of autistic characters in film and TV and numerous inclusion initiatives by public venues and organisations, there is no doubt that we as a society have come far. However, there is still a wide gap between being aware of autism and truly understanding and accepting autistic people.
Part of the challenge is the fact that autism is an invisible condition – it is not always apparent, as people who live with it present in different ways. While some will require 24/7 support, others will live very independent lives. One of the biggest misconceptions we come across is when people fail to understand the individuality and multi-dimensional nature of autism. Unfortunately, this is true of the professional community too and not just the wider public.
The result of this is that too often autistic people and their families are confronted with harsh judgment. Over the years, I have heard about and seen examples of public disdain towards the behaviour of children on the autism spectrum who might be reacting to stressful situations or experiencing sensory overload. In such situations, onlookers can, at times, show a real lack of tolerance and empathy. This negative reaction is often amplified further if it is an autistic adult acting outwith our “societal norms”.
Addressing this gulf in understanding is important and, I fully accept, no easy process. We have to start by asking how truly inclusive we are as a nation and whether we accept and understand difference and diversity. Just as autistic people are expected to conform to what are often inflexible and unwritten social systems and rules, the rest of society has a part to play too.
Despite the fact that Scotland is five years into a national strategy for autism there are still a number of challenges and barriers that autistic people and their families face. Under current structures, it is often unclear which services should be taking responsibility for supporting people with the condition as it is neither a learning disability or a mental health issue.
What people require is a spectrum of provision for a spectrum of need. While that fact is recognised by practitioners and many within government, the current climate of economic uncertainty means rather than investing in proactive support we are increasingly responding to crisis situations. This approach makes little economic sense and, more importantly, adversely impacts on individuals and families living with autism.
We need to recognise the value of autistic people, many of whom are extremely capable individuals making a major contribution in society, and tap into their skills and talents. Along with promoting more meaningful engagement to better understand their needs, we must recognise an autistic individual’s rights to a full education and employment as well as other opportunities. We need to minimise stereotypes and educate the wider public, especially those running public services, to be open-minded about making what are often minor adjustments to accommodate people living on the autism spectrum.
There’s a significant journey ahead before we reach these objectives. Perhaps the mark of true success will come when we no longer need to recognise World Autism Awareness Day as a means of raising public awareness and understanding.
Charlene Tait is Director of Autism Practice and Research at Scottish Autism. For further information visit: www.scottishautism.org