Lynn Bell is CEO of LOVE, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition
This week marks World Autism Awareness Week, with campaigners seeking to raise further awareness of the condition and improve the lives of those affected by it.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. If you are autistic you are autistic for life and autism is not an illness or disease. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity. Although there’s no cure for autism, with the right support many autistic people live fulfilled and active lives.
Awareness of autism has also been greatly raised, with primetime TV shows like The A-Word and Channel 4’s The Autistic Gardener. There are also the Scandi-noir characters Sara Lund in The Killing and Saga Noren in The Bridge.
However, these on-screen depictions often do not reflect the day-to-day reality for many of those with autism who struggle with social interactions and social communication. They also tend to experience high levels of anxiety and sensory overload, with these challenges leading to anger, frustration and embarrassment, which often manifests itself in meltdowns.
It has been estimated that there are around 700,000 people in the UK living with autism – that’s more than one in 100 people, and around 50,000 of these are in Scotland.
We continue to hear from autistic people and their families who miss out on an education and struggle to find work, often due to misunderstandings about autism. Even just a little more awareness could transform the lives of many autistic people.
Without understanding, autistic people and families are at risk of being isolated. For a child with autism this can lead to rejection and bullying which can engender loneliness and anxiety. This often results in a slippery slope to school exclusion, unemployment and mental health problems, such as depression and self-harm.
According to the National Autistic Society, 34 per cent of children on the autistic spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on. Additionally, 17 per cent of autistic children have been suspended from school and 48 per cent of these had been suspended three or more times.
There is much we can do that could make a difference to the lives of thousands of children and young people with autism. The education of some of these children and young people in a mainstream environment can be toxic and specialist provision can be transformational. We need to do more to ensure these children and young people are educated in a setting that will allow them to reach their full potential.
What would also greatly assist in a mainstream environment is increasing specialist teacher provision, while also ensuring greater training for teachers in how to address the needs of those with autism.
Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults, and the isolation they suffer often continues during their older years. It should be noted, for example, that only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment. However, autistic individuals can demonstrate incredible creativity and attention to detail. It is vital that there is greater awareness among employees of this and that they look behind the label of the person concerned.
World Autism Week is a unique time for everyone to learn more about autism, whether it’s the general public, teachers or politicians. We encourage everyone to seek to improve the lives of those living with autism by donating and taking part in activities to help fund campaigns that raise awareness of the realities of autism and work to enrich the lives of autistic people.