Are you aware of autism?

By - Tuesday 25th April, 2017

And if you are, what more can you do to understand this wide-spectrum condition?

Photo public domain.

World Autism Awareness Week took place between 27th March and 1st April 2017. But aren’t we all aware of autism already?

In many ways, the answer is ‘yes’. As Mark Lever, Chief Executive of The National Autistic Society told us at the society’s annual professional conference, awareness is up at around 98-99 per cent. So, is it autism understanding we need to work on now?

In many ways, autism has never been so public. We’ve all seen the film Rain Man – but now we have characters like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, the brilliant The A Word and celebrities such as Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah and Dan Aykroyd all talking about their autism. So if you are aware of autism, great – but how much do we actually know?

Understanding autism can be tricky – it’s a wide spectrum

Autism is a life-long developmental condition that affects how a person communicates and relates to other people and the way that they see the world around them. Understanding autism can be tricky as it is a wide spectrum, and those on the spectrum will share certain difficulties, but their autism will affect them in different ways. People with autism can also have an over- or under-sensitivity to things such as sound, touch, taste or smells. So the next time that you see a child ‘kicking off’ in the Whitgift Centre, just think – they may be autistic, and a sound or smell has caused such anxiety or pain they are simply having a meltdown. A great portrayal of this can be found on the National Autistic Society website; the Too Much Information campaign shows what it can be like to be an autistic child in a shopping centre.

As autism is a hidden disability, you can’t look at someone and know that they are autistic. This can make things difficult, especially in social and working life. The important thing to remember is that autism is a lifelong condition. There is no cure for autism, but certain techniques and support can help people to lead independent lives, hold down jobs, start businesses, get married, have children, retire and do all of the things that we neurotypicals do.

For me, the autistic mind is the greatest untapped resource that we have in the world. Companies and organisations are starting to see this; Microsoft and GCHQ have recently recruited from the autistic community because of the skills that the community can provide. The autistic mind can be detail-focused and many people on the spectrum have a special interest that they know everything about. The autistic mind can be great at spotting little details that we miss, and is great at being creative. I keep using the word ‘can’, as everyone’s autism will affect them differently and – to a greater or lesser degree – that’s why it’s called a spectrum condition. And it’s a massive spectrum, which goes from someone who is non-verbal their whole life and needs 24-hour care, to the computer geniuses in Silicon Valley. So remember – if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve still only met one person with autism.

Autism is not just a health and education issue

Around one in 100 people in the UK are autistic, but many think that that number is higher. We have a higher-than-average number here in Croydon; that is why we are looking to expand our education provision and work with employers to get autistic people into jobs. Autism is not just a health and education issue; politically it covers all portfolio areas such as transport, leisure, culture, justice and, of course, the economy and jobs.

As an autism champion, that is my job as I see it. I chair Croydon’s Autism Partnership Board, which brings together people from across the community and Croydon Council to try to make things better. I also work with the cabinet to make sure that their policies are autism friendly and, being a councillor, I get to meet decision makers around Croydon. Recently, I saw the CEO of a local hospital to talk about autism-friendly designs for a new A&E building, and this – I have been told – is going to happen with sensory equipment in treatment rooms, quiet areas and many ideas being investigated to help staff and patients to feel more comfortable.

Many other local authorities are looking at this model and feel that having the political sway of an autism champion would assist them, too. Let’s be honest – if you are not going to use political office to try to make things better, then what’s the point of standing in the first place!

If it wasn’t for one autistic person millions of years ago…

When you ask an autistic person what would make things better for them, one of the top answers is often understanding and awareness. We have done lots of training at the council, and I must thank Paul and the team at our adult autism project for the great work that they have done. So if you are going to do one thing, then make it our e-learning course which is free to anyone who lives and works in Croydon. Simply self-register with a Croydon postcode and expand your knowledge of this fascinating, amazing condition, because if it wasn’t for one autistic person millions of years ago wondering what’s outside, we’d still be living in caves, banging rocks together.

If you ask me ‘what’s autism?’, I use this computer analogy. Imagine that the whole world is a PC. If you are autistic, you are a Mac. You communicate differently, you operate differently, you see things differently – but you are still absolutely amazing and the world needs you.

Andrew Rendle

Andrew Rendle

Andrew is a councillor for Ashburton ward. He is also very proud to be Croydon's Autism Champion. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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