Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Autism-friendly and other advances

Is the world a better place for people with autism now compared to say, 20 or 30 years ago?
Think back 30 years to 1981. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' - "bad dates", 'For Your Eyes Only',  and Shakin' Stevens (the Welsh Elvis!). It was 2 years after Lorna Wing and Judy Gould published their paper on the epidemiology of autism and the same year that Lorna Wing popularised Asperger syndrome (it would take over 10 years to make it into the diagnostic manuals).
I ask the question following a few interesting stories that have appeared in various media.
The BBC carried a report recently on the subject of an 'Autism-friendly city'. I have seen similar reports using the words 'autism-friendly'; where for example the top 10 autism-friendly US cities have been recently posted by Autism Speaks and places like cinemas offer autism-friendly screenings.
I think most people would like the idea of something being 'autism-friendly'.
In these times of equality and diversity, there have been huge advances, socially, culturally and legally in making our world a more inclusive place for everyone.
In the UK with the onset of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 (replaced by the Equality Act in 2010) we saw things like statutory rights in terms of access to buildings for people with physical disabilities and making various reading material available in larger print. Such measures have been fundamental in shaping our infrastructure, policies and opinions on ability and disability. The only real surprise is that it took so long for such legislation to become enacted - people in wheelchairs or who are visually-impaired did not just suddenly 'spring up' in the 1990s.
The introduction of the UK Autism Act in 2009 represents a similar step forward for autism; the National Autistic Society and partners are to be commended for their efforts in getting this bill enacted. The Act is probably the only piece of law specific to a 'condition' in the UK and sets important goals for Government in terms of recognising the needs of adults with autism. The Act focused on adults with autism simply because there was a gap after children's services ended - some might describe the gap as more like a void.
Alongside the increasing awareness of autism, the die seems to have been cast. Assuming also that the NICE guidelines due for autism (adults and children) are well described and implemented in the not-too-distant future, I hope I don't speak out of turn when I say that one really gets the feeling that changes are slowly being made to benefit people with autism and their families. The IACC on the other side of the Pond is another very positive step forward.
Everything is not universally 'rosy' with the world for all people with autism. There are still some harrowing stories of real hardship in relation to employment, financial independence and basic equality. Periodically more extreme events are reported potentially as a result of stress. One must also be mindful that there are quite a few people with autism who are perfectly happy to exist with themselves as they are and are not necessarily seeking such great social inclusion (as exemplified by direct person-to-person contact) - see this link on autism and 'Second Life' for an example. In these times of austerity, there may yet also be a sting in the tail for many people following proposed changes which are being vehemently opposed.
Perhaps in another 30 years I can come back and ask the same question: is the world a better place for people with autism?