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A Is for Autism - Let's Make Sure It's on the Agenda

01/04/2016 17:01 | Updated 01 April 2016

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Saturday 2nd April marks World Autism Day and April is a month given over to raising awareness of autism and recognising the huge shift still required to ensure autistic people are respected, included and supported throughout their lives.

The BBC has commissioned a series of programmes on autism including the drama, "The A Word". Understandably the reaction to this programme was mixed - some thought it an accurate depiction of living with autism, others thought it was an inaccurate stereotype.

I thought it was excellent. Not only because Joe had top taste in music, but because it showed the complexity in understanding autism and crucially the reactions of people to it - the furrowed brows, the confused glances, the embarrassed sniggers.

It reminded me that we're all guilty of putting each other into the neat boxes of 'normal' and 'not normal' as if there's no middle ground, and as if we are anywhere close to being qualified to judge anyone on such a scale.

What the programme highlighted so well is that for all the improvements in diagnosis, autism remains one of the most misunderstood disabilities.

As well as running a charity for young people with complex disabilities, including young people on the autistic spectrum, I deliver training for volunteers in understanding autism. We start with a basic question - what is autism? The answers are varied, almost always wrong but never surprising - good at maths, can't speak, badly behaved, doesn't have emotions.

The other common misconception is that autism is rare. Almost 60,000 people in Scotland are autistic and the National Autistic Society suggests some 230,000 people in Scotland are touched by autism in some way every day - across the UK it's 2.8million people.

This makes it something we must all sit up and take action on.

The starting point is getting diagnosis right. In fact the one point that was unrealistic in the BBC's drama was the speed at which Joe was diagnosed - for most families the experience is a wait of months and even years before a formal diagnosis is given. While there is no cure to autism, getting an early diagnosis is key to the right support being put in place which can transform their life. Think of having a disability that renders you unable to walk but having to wait years for a wheelchair - there would rightly be public outrage. Why should autism be any different, simply because it can't always be seen?

Education is one of the hot topics in this election, and even more so for autistic children. Like any other child they can flourish at school with the right support, but for too many that support simply isn't there. Cuts to local authority budgets are already beginning to have an impact on the individual support that can be provided in addition to the class teacher. There has already been a sharp reduction in teacher and classroom assistant numbers over the past few years at the same time as the number of children with additional support needs has significantly increased.

Getting the right support in place in the early years is so important to all young people's development but particularly autistic children. However we do then need to think of what comes next - autistic children grow up to be autistic adults - their support needs don't just disappear because they've turned 18.

I know several autistic young adults who were able to gain independence and learn important life skills in part time courses at local colleges. Those courses have been cut and they have joined the ranks of the 152,000 fewer students at college in the past decade.

The Scottish Government's strategy is that autistic people are respected, accepted and valued by their communities and have confidence in services to treat them fairly so that they are able to have meaningful and satisfying lives.

Nobody could disagree with that aim, and we have made steps in recent years towards achieving it. But for too many autistic people Scotland's schools, pubs, hospitals, workplaces, shops, cinemas, football grounds and everything else are not autism friendly.

Not yet anyway - but if we put autism firmly on the agenda for the next Parliament they might be in the future.

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