Almost everyone has heard of autism. But far too few people understand what it can be like to be autistic. This is why children, adults and families came together last month to mark World Autism Awareness Week (WAAW) between 1 and 7 April and get people talking about autism. The sheer number of events and activities that took place was encouraging – in schools, social care services, offices and high streets up and down the country.
Why we need to improve public understanding of autism
When things go wrong for autistic people and their families, the root cause is often a lack of understanding of autism and what it’s like to be autistic. It could be an autistic boy who has been unfairly excluded from school, an autistic woman who has never been able to find a job, or a parent who has spent years fighting for a diagnosis and support for their child.
Better understanding of autism could transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of autistic people. It would help make sure our health service can support autistic patients, improve school staff’s ability to teach and support autistic children in schools, and mean that employers know about the small things they can do to attract autistic talent.
This year, we wanted to focus on trying to get the public to understand the challenges autistic people can face and how they can help. So we launched Stories from the Spectrum, a series of blogs highlighting the rich variety of autistic experiences. We heard from five different autistic people about their strengths and challenges that they face. We will be continuing to share stories throughout the year.
There was a lot of engagement with MPs, who play a huge role in making sure autistic people can get the support they need. Even before the week started, there was a two-hour debate in the House of Commons drawing attention to issues faced by autistic people, including public understanding, education, employment, health services, and the incorrect inclusion of autism as a ‘mental disorder’ in the Mental Health Act.
A real highlight of the week was Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, announcing plans for a new autism public awareness campaign launching later this year. He revealed that he wants the campaign to “improve perceptions of the disability and ensure people are understanding and appreciative of the situations autistic people may find challenging.” This is something we have called for many years.
The Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage MP, also got involved. She visited our Birch House service in Godalming, met the people we support there and joined them at a street stall. She also took part in our first ever Understanding Autism session for an MP. We’re holding a much bigger session in Parliament on 1 May and are encouraging as many MPs to attend as possible.
Away from Parliament, over 4,000 teachers and parents signed up their schools for free educational resources, like lesson and assembly plans, to help their children and young people learn more about autism. And hundreds of our supporters took part in our Spectrum Night Walks in five different UK cities. The fundraising has helped raise around £250,000 for our charity. This is amazing and will help us continue our work building a society that works for autistic people.
In Manchester, around 100 people from various businesses attended a special autism and employment event, organised by Auto Trader and Inclusive Companies to celebrate Auto Trader achieving our first ever Autism Friendly Employer Award. It was really encouraging to see so many employers interested in finding out more about autism – and how they can open up the workplace for autistic people.
Our thanks go to everyone who got involved. It was amazing to see so much happening. And don’t worry if you missed it – you can find out more about autism at any time by visiting our website. And we’ll of course be working all year to make sure these issues remain on the national agenda and lead to real change for autistic people and their families.
“When things go wrong the root cause is often a lack of understanding of autism.”
“Stories from the Spectrum highlights the rich variety of autistic experiences.”