Autism Awareness over breakfast

A Parliamentary Breakfast was held this morning to raise awareness of and support for autism. Breakfast functions arranged by community organisations are a regular feature at Parliament House. They are usually a straight-forward occasion, going for about an hour from 7.30, with a few speakers and some information about the topic. The speakers at this one included Katherine Annear (an adult with ASD) and John Doyle (better known as Roy Slaven from HG & Roy).

This breakfast was organised by the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders (formerly the Autism Council of Australia). I’ve been to quite a few of these over the years, and this one was one of the better attended of its type. Close to 60 MPs and Senators there, which is a pretty good proportion out of the total of 226.

This is a sign of the increasing awareness of the size and importance of autism spectrum disorders (often just called ASD), both to individuals and families, and to society as a whole. Great credit should go to the tireless work of many people at community level over many years, often working through thinly funded groups, at achieving this increased awareness.

This finally resulted in some funding being announced in the final days of the previous government, which is now being carried through by the new government through its Helping Children with Autism program.

It seems to me early intervention and support is a critical factor for the children and families affected, combined with greater community awareness of the nature of conditions on the autism spectrum, which includes Aspergers Syndrome, a mild form of autism which is becoming more widely recognised. Ongoing support, particularly for those most severely affected, is also important.

Because autism is an invisible and variable condition, it is harder for people to be aware of and understand it unless they have direct exposure to it. As awareness increases, the level of diagnosis increases. Current figures suggest around 130 000 Australians are affected.

One thing I think is important in increasing understanding of autism conditions is that it does not mean that all people affected are necessarily dysfunctional. Many people with ASD can function well – especially if they receive early intervention as children – and indeed can have heightened capacities in some areas. Recognising and taking into account the different communication styles and ways words and behaviour can be interpreted is important, but this is not the same as always treating people as being less capable or needing to separate them from mainstream society.

On the contrary, regardless of the severity of the condition, we should be seeking to enable people to be able to particpate as fully as possible into mainstream society. Many of them have abilities which society and economy would benefit from. John Doyle’s short but lovely speech spoke of his sister, who has a severe form of autism, reciting word for word conversations of long dead relatives from decades ago.

There is no doubt that autism is an extremely disabling condition in its severest form and I don’t seek to diminish the difficulties involved with that, but I am a little bit uncomfortable with the term “Disorder”. Applying this label across an entire spectrum risks creating an unduly negative perception, especially amongst the many people in the wider community who don’t have much direct experience or understanding of people with ASD.

I am sure the many autism advocates in the community will be continuing to build on the major advances they have gained in recent times. I hope and expect that the initial programs starting to be announced by the federal and state governments will be expanded, and the community more broadly is able to carry things further forward. Some of this is about providing more support to individuals and families and carers who need it, but it is also about enabling our society to fully benefit from the capabilities and skills which people with autism related conditions possess.

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