Jenny Paterson: Make some time for Autism Hour

Jenny Paterson is director of The National Autistic Society Scotland
Jenny Paterson is director of The National Autistic Society Scotland
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This week more than 480 organisations across Scotland are taking part in the world’s first mass participation autism quiet hour.

From the Bank of Scotland in Lerwick, to Superdrug in Stranraer, via Pets at Home in Oban and even the Scottish Parliament, a wide range of organisations have signed up to The National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour. Throughout the week they will all take steps to ensure autistic customers can access and enjoy their public spaces, such as reducing noise, dimming bright lights, and sharing autism information with employees and other customers.

Autism Hour kicked off today at 10am at Braehead and Julie Macdonald, the co-chair of our volunteer branch in Renfrewshire, was pleased to see her local shopping centre taking part. Her 13-year-old son, Lewis, is autistic. He can manage no more than 30 minutes at the shops because he finds the lights, noise and smells too difficult.

Julie hopes that Autism Hour will help organisations right across Scotland to understand that small adjustments can make a very big difference to families like hers.

We know that many autistic people find public spaces overwhelming and uninviting – and this is often made worse by encountering people who simply don’t understand their condition. A survey we conducted as part of our campaign to raise public understanding of autism, Too Much Information, revealed that 90 per cent of families have experienced people staring at their child’s autistic behaviour and 73 per cent have been “tutted” at. Julie has experienced this first-hand when out shopping with Lewis. She describes him going “rigid” when he’s uncomfortable, and says that people around him assume he’s having a teenage strop. Sometimes Lewis takes Julie’s hand for comfort, and that makes people stare even more.

Julie finds these reactions upsetting. That’s completely understandable – I would be furious! She says she feels like people are judging her, that they think she’s a bad parent and that Lewis is spoiled. Julie would love to explain what’s really going on, and why the staring and tutting really doesn’t help her or Lewis, but her priority in those moments is protecting and supporting her son.

Almost half of autistic people and their families sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react to them. That’s simply not good enough, and it’s why I believe that sharing information about the condition with staff and members of the public during Autism Hour is as important as recognising the sensory needs of autistic customers. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to become an autism expert, but I do believe everyone should have some understanding of the condition which affects around 58,000 people in Scotland.

It’s really encouraging to know that 487 organisations in Scotland and more than 4500 across the UK are taking part in Autism Hour in its first year, and I’d like to thank and congratulate them all.

Of course, there shouldn’t be just one hour in which autistic people can enjoy the shops, cinemas, restaurants and leisure centres that most of us take for granted. And autistic people and their families shouldn’t feel that they can’t access these spaces at the same time as everyone else. That’s not what Autism Hour is about. It’s about helping organisations to understand the needs of their autistic customers. It’s about proving that being autism-friendly isn’t difficult or restricting. And it’s about tackling the social isolation that two-thirds of autistic people face. It’s an important step forward, and that’s why I’m glad that, this week, Scotland is making time for Autism Hour.

Jenny Paterson is director of The National Autistic Society Scotland. To find out about organisations taking part in Autism Hour, visit: www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/tmi/autism-hour/map.aspx