Support and services for people on the autism spectrum have improved markedly in the past 20 years. But they're still nowhere near as widespread or as good as they need to be - we're still hearing of many autistic people who are isolated and unable to access any help in their area, often after years of bullying and misunderstanding.
This is unacceptable and has to change, which is why organisations like the National Autistic Society work with autistic campaigners and their families across the country to increase understanding of autism, improve support and services and hold the Government to account on their responsibilities.
It's also important to recognise and encourage good practice where it is happening - and there are indeed many individuals and services doing great work and making a huge difference - so this can be replicated in other parts of the country. This is why we run the Autism Professionals Awards and conference, helping professionals to find out what's new in the field, learn from experts, including people on the autism spectrum, and share best practice. We're currently gearing up for the 2016 awards and want people affected by autism, and those working with people on the spectrum, to nominate inspirational individuals or services who have made a difference to their lives or are engaged in innovative work around autism.
In so many of the conversations I have with families and individuals, I am struck by what an enormous impact a skilled, enlightened, knowledgeable professional can have. They can be the difference between a life of isolation and one that surpasses all expectations. I know of countless autistic adults who were struggling but, with the right support, managed to turn their life around and achieve things they never thought possible, whether that's living semi-independently, holding down a successful job or getting married; each person on the autism spectrum is unique and, like any of us, success and happiness is different for each individual.
Inspirational professionals come in all shapes and sizes and don't need to be in a position of authority or have high level academic qualifications; it may be a volunteer at a youth club or school who just seems to 'get' what it's like to raise a child on the spectrum or a support worker who has a rapport with an autistic adult when no-one else seems able to reach them. What's consistent is having the ability to listen and learn and a natural curiosity about how the other person is thinking, feeling and seeing the world. These attributes are vital in a good autism professional, and are always appreciated by families. It may seem simple but the smallest thing can sometimes make the biggest difference.
The 2015 Autism Professionals Awards winners
In previous years, we've had amazing winners such as Jim Taylor who won the lifetime achievement in 2015, in recognition of the 35 years he's spent educating children and young people on the spectrum. We also saw Julia Malkin MBE and Robyn Steward jointly win the Award for Outstanding Achievement by an Individual on the Autism Spectrum; Julia, in recognition of her efforts to improve the prospects of autistic adults around Leicester through the specialist driving school she runs; Robyn, for her tireless work campaigning and improving understanding of the condition as an autism consultant, artist and musician. The awards also recognise the vital role of volunteers like Kate Laine-Toner who founded Bristol Autism Support for local families affected by autism.
We know there are individuals and services across the country going that extra mile for people on the autism spectrum, and their families, and we want to hear about them. Autism can have a profound effect on individuals and families but the right support from passionate and caring people can make all the difference. We need to celebrate that so we can inspire others.
The NAS brings the autism professional community together once a year at the NAS Professionals Awards to share best practice, learn from others and ultimately improve support and services for people on the spectrum, their families, friends and carers. This year's awards, which are sponsored by Axcis Education Recruitment, take place on Tuesday 1 March 2016 in Telford.
To find out more or nominate an individual or service, visit our website.