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Column To understand autism, try to climb into the shoes of someone with the condition

Stigma surrounding Autistic Spectrum conditions grows because the issue is not talked about enough in society. Tackling misunderstandings requires people to talk openly and honestly, writes Adam Harris.

HAPPY WORLD AUTISM Awareness Day! Throughout the globe today buildings such as the Empire State Building, the Pyramids, the London Eye and our own Blarney Castle will turn blue to mark the day and events and fundraisers will be held in towns and cities all around the world.

What’s it all about, though? For many touched by the condition or families struggling to obtain diagnosis, access services, or even just face up to the daily challenge of “living with autism” today may seem very tokenistic – a field day for the media and an opportunity for the great and good to be seen to support the condition before all reverts to normal tomorrow – little more or little less.

One in 88 people on average have a condition on the Autistic Spectrum

It is very easy to understand how people might feel like this – shouldn’t autism get more attention year round? Shouldn’t more funds be provided to supporting those with the condition instead of needing to organise massive fundraisers? Well, a lot of that is probably true but at the end of the day you still have to play the hand you are dealt and for us, the AS community in Ireland and across the world, today is an opportunity for a number of reasons.

One in 88 people on average have a condition on the Autistic Spectrum. If you break it down that should mean 1 to 2 people in your year group in school and maybe double or three times that amount in your college course; if you work for a multinational or large company it could mean between 5 and 10 colleagues and many, many more in the area you live, the events you attend and the people you meet throughout your life.

Yet if we are honest – what do the public really understand about the condition? How are our teachers or lecturers trained to support those affected? Are our companies open to people with autistic conditions working for them? I think it’s fair to say on all fronts – more needs to be done and before that more needs to be understood. The sad reality is that of the examples I have just listed the representation of people with autism is not proportional because those with the condition quite simply can’t cope or aren’t provided with the support they need in those environments.

‘The journey of a 1,000 miles starts with just one step’

Robert Kennedy once said “The journey of a 1,000 miles starts with just one step” and really that is what today is about. It would be lovely to think that when the clock strikes midnight and the day draws to a close, the public would understand the condition, employment for those with Autism would soar, bullying and exclusion disappear and the education system run like clockwork for those with the condition, but that won’t happen. What we can do today though is make the initial contact, take that first step, we can challenge those around us to try and learn something about the condition they didn’t know already, we can inform professionals be they teachers or employers about the condition and through media coverage and blogs; help them to climb into the shoes of someone with the condition and get some small insight as to how those on the spectrum operate.

If we can achieve that well today has been a massive success, and the journey won’t stop there. The employer who is struck by the fact that 86 per cent of those on the spectrum are long-term unemployed, will be inspired to take positive action, the teacher who thought the child in her class was just bold may try and look for solutions to the issues arising and people all around the world may try to be just that little bit more inclusive as they go about their day to day activities.

Destroying stigma

Before I conclude, I also think there is another positive aspect to today. In Ireland, and in many other countries, there is a big stigma around autism. I have met so many parents petrified to tell extended family, friends or other parents about their child’s condition for fear that it will lead to their exclusion or isolation. I know from my own experiences, as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as from speaking with others that the worry and discomfort I used to feel in telling someone, even my own best friends, about having the condition for fear that it would separate me from the pack or make me stand out. While some of this does stem from the fear of being treated “special” or differently, which I have written about before, much of it also stems from the fact that we don’t discuss the condition enough as a society and so don’t know how people will react to us talking about it.

Today, we put the shame to one side. Not only can we acknowledge and talk about our condition but we can be proud of who we are. If we all were to achieve that today, to get into the celebratory feel, to realise the world’s buildings are lit up for us and to see the joy so many with the condition bring to the world (not to mention to Aspie geniuses such as Einstein!) then the day is not tokenistic and is not once off because if those of us with the condition all learn to talk and open up more about it – understanding will grow and through our own self-advocacy awareness, openness and support across society will surely increase.

Happy World Autism Awareness Day – enjoy it, use it!

Adam Harris is the founder of and the Disability Advice Network. is an online support and social hub website for those affected by Asperger Syndrome and their families.

To find out more about this project, Adam’s story, Asperger Syndrome or other projects being planned by the Disability Advice Network or to get involved then please email or on Twitter @AspergersAdvice.

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