This is an article I submitted to the Edinburgh Evening News. It was trimmed a little on publication due to space.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day. Around 67 million people worldwide (500,000 in the UK) are affected by autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).
Perceptions of autism and Asperger Syndrome are often formed from popular films like 'Rain Man' and books such as 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time'. While these are valid depictions, one has to remember that they are caricatures. While all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them differently.
Autism affects how a person communicates and relates to other people, and how they make sense of the world around them. They may experience over-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. One autistic child I know has very sensitive feet and often walks barefoot on tiptoes. She can't cope with seemingly normal levels of background noise and frequently walks around with her fingers in her ears. Sadly, such idiosyncratic behaviour can result in bullying. Over 40% of children with ASD report as having been bullied at school.
For public policy purposes, ASD has been classed as either a mental health issue or learning disability. It is, in fact, neither, although many people who have ASD may also have these conditions. The development of the first Scottish Autism Strategy will help to focus minds on the needs of people with ASD, and I welcome the £10 million earmarked for research.
We already know there is an increasing number of young people with ASD. These young people need support to achieve better outcomes and improved life skills, and to access and maintain employment and social networks. The Council provides a number of services for people with ASD. For example we have recently started a new service for young people with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome to help them plan for when they leave school. This service is called 'ASPIRE'. It has been well-received but we need to look at what more we can do to expand and improve our services.
ASD is a complex neurobiological disorder, and people with ASD may challenge our preconceptions by not falling into 'neat' categories. On World Autism Awareness Day I would urge everyone reading this column to take five minutes out of their busy day to improve their knowledge of this condition.