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'I consider myself a success, to someone else that might mean working four hours a week'

The second annual National Autism Conference is happening in Dublin today.

Adam Harris
Adam Harris
Image: AsIAm.ie

A CONFERENCE HAPPENING in Dublin today will focus on what life is like for people with autism in Ireland.

The second annual National Autism Conference in Malahide will hear from people living with the condition, as well as Irish and international experts.

The event is being organised by AsIAm, an autism advocacy organisation.

Speaking ahead of the conference, AsIAm founder Adam Harris says, despite the fact one in 65 people in Ireland live with autism, there’s still a lack of understanding about the condition.

Autism can affect a person’s social interaction, communication and language skills. As outlined here, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning the symptoms and characteristics can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations and can range from mild to severe.

Harris was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, when he was five years old.

Today’s conference will hear about the hundreds of children with autism who drop out of secondary school in Ireland every year, and what changes could be made to help stop this happening.

Harris tells TheJournal.ie: “When most children are born, without even thinking twice about it, parents have a certain set of expectations – that they’ll go to school, make friends, get a job, live independently. Unfortunately for our community that often isn’t the case.”

Inclusive schools and workplaces 

Harris, whose brother is Health Minister Simon Harris, says over 80% of children with autism attend a mainstream school, but many schools have not made the necessary changes to be inclusive for them.

He notes that a new school building has to have ramps and a lift, if across more than one floor, in order to be accessible for wheelchair users.

“For a person with autism, the bell going off may be upsetting. Things like this can be as much of a barrier to people with autism as lack of accessibility can be for people with a physical disability,” he explains.

Harris says although the school system is “deeply flawed” at least there is a structure in place, something he feels is often absent in adulthood.

“When you hear the word ‘autism’ the picture that comes into most people’s heads is of a child, but these children become adults. As they grow older, their supports must grow up with them.

They are three-dimensional people, they will need mental health support at some stage, they may experience anxiety or depression, or be confused about their sexuality.

He says many people, even if they want to help, have a “one dimensional view of people with autism”.

Harris says about eight in 10 people with the condition are unemployed or underemployed – meaning they are in a job that doesn’t reflect their skillset or level of education.

He notes that job interviews can sometimes be difficult for people with autism, adding that many people struggle with whether or not they should tell prospective employers they have autism.

Harris advises they do as, if the organisation reacts badly to this or won’t put the right supports in place, they’re not the right company to work for.

Going out

Harris says going on nights out can also be daunting for people with autism, stating: “A huge group of people in our society are afraid and isolated.”

He notes that people may become nervous on a night out and start stimming – rocking back and forth or repeating themselves.

If people see a child rocking back and forth, they don’t pay too much heed. If they see an adult doing this, they pass judgement, they may feel uncomfortable or question if the person is drunk. Behaviour can be misunderstood.

Harris adds that witnessing violence on a night out can be “overwhelming” for some people with autism.

A broad spectrum

One of the conference’s speakers Dr Stephen Shore, a well-known American professor and author, coined the famous line: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Harris says this hits the nail on the head, noting how – like non-autistic people – no two individuals are the same.

“Some people will always need a huge amount of support and some people will live very independently.

I consider myself a successful outcome. To someone else that might mean working four hours a week in their community, being able to travel independently, being able to live independently. Success looks different for everyone.

Happiness 

Dr Peter Vermeulen, an autism expert and lecturer at Autisme Centraal in Belgium, is also speaking at the conference today.

While there were clinical tools to measure sensory overload, anxiety and depression among people with autism, Harris says Vermeulen spotted a gap – there was nothing to measure happiness.

“I know that might sound happy clappy but it’s important,” Harris tells us.

Through his research, Vermeulen found there is no correlation in where a person is on the autistic spectrum and their level of happiness.

Harris says happiness is ultimately about “reaching your own potential and having a role in society”.

He notes that while most people want their children to be inclusive and understanding, many adults don’t hold themselves up to the same standard.

We need to stop talking about [autism] as a charity issue, it’s a human rights issue. People talk about fundraising, I’d nearly say don’t fundraise. Instead ask yourself if your workplace or school is inclusive.

“Sometimes people ask what success for a person with autism means. For me, it’s that a child in school grows up to be invited to the 21st birthday party, that they’re totally integrated,” Harris says.

The National Autism Conference is sold out but will be livestreamed. You can follow the conference on social media by using the hashtag #AsIAmConf17.

Read: RTÉ launches ‘groundbreaking’ new series whose main character and cast are on the autism spectrum

Read: New bill to support children with autism after 20,000 people sign petition for it

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Órla Ryan

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