Evaleen Whelton is an autistic advocate and trainer and founder of AUsome.

Autistic people are second class citizens

Last week was concerning and challenging for many in the autistic community. It has really demonstrated and confirmed for our nation how much work autistic people and organisations have yet to undertake.

Recently Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone referred to An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkaar, as “autistic” in the presence of an Irish Times journalist. Ms Noone issued an apology following public backlash and later that day, her apology was accepted by An Taoiseach.

Was it his apology to accept? Many of us are left wondering why An Taoiseach had designated himself as a spokesperson for the autistic community.

As the flurry of conversation continues, the press have quoted outdated and untrue ideas about autistic people e.g. how we have problems with relationships, understanding the feelings of others, that we have impairments in in social interaction, social communication and imagination. I had to check the date on some of the articles because they resembled ideas from 1970s.

In one sense, some of this commentary is partially correct, but not fully nor in the manner in which they were delivered.

Autistic people do experience communication difficulties on a very regular basis, although I doubt any the commentators realise how much of a part they play in it. As an oppressed minority, medicalised for our differences, we indeed have difficulties with communication, we have difficulties getting into a conversation which is very much about us and we have difficulties being considered for comment where instead the opinions of professionals are sought. We have difficulties having an apology addressed to us.

Austistic voices are lost in public discourse and this past week have confirmed this. Where are the autistic voices in this very public conversation?

Asiam have been quoted twice but aside from these slight references, I cannot see any. I observe medical professionals and non-autistic led charities offering their biased, misguided and misinformed opinions on us, declaring them as factual and creating further difficulties and work for us.

I retract when I see social media commentators commiserating with parents and families of autistic kids even though 75 per cent of autistic people are adults.

Using words like “affected by autism” which is completely discriminatory language, is common place. People complain about Ms Noone’s comment, while using equally inappropriate commentary, which serves only to increase discriminatory attitudes towards autistic people. As an autistic advocate and trainer, I teach people who really want to understand autistic people, to look beyond the behaviours.

As someone who became a careful student of human behaviour very early on in life, for my self-protection, I can look beyond all this behaviour and see a nation who are blissfully unaware of what being autistic means and the living realities for so many of us , your fellow citizens.

Autistic people do not have difficulties relating to others, we have difficulties understanding language and culture that is different to our own, something we share with non-autistic people. Because non-autistics are a majority and autistics are a minority, our language and culture has been pathologised for almost a century.

Autistic people are denied access to education, healthcare systems and to employment. We aren’t looking for supports per-se, but for equal access and equal opportunities. We need and deserve systems which work for us, not ones that don’t, as well as ones that do, like all people should be afforded as part of their human rights package.

We are often excluded by the physical environments we find ourselves inhabiting and I’m glad to see much important and necessary work is being done to create more “sensory friendly” environments but our environments also include the people in them and those people refer to us as ‘affected’, ‘impaired’, ‘disordered’, ‘burdens’ as having a ‘condition’.

Many autistic people are challenging the medical model because it has oppressed us for almost 100 years because it looks at us through such a narrow lens that it misses so much of what we truly experience.

Autistic people have a social communication which is specific to us and autistic people can communicate perfectly well. Recent research carried out in Edinburgh University shows that autistic people are better communicators than our non-autistic peers.

Many of the ‘behavioural therapies’ designed to ‘help’ us actually harm us, and have been proven to cause Post-traumatic stress disorder.

The average life expectancy for an autistic person is 54 years and our main cause of death is suicide, as many of us suffer mental health issues, all as a direct result of the attitudes society holds about us and the language they use to describe us, because of stigma, lack of education and lack of willingness to engage meaningfully to learn realities.

I am aware that people know no differently, but pose and stress the question: how could they know any better when there is always someone speaking for autistic people, not with?

As an autistic advocate and trainer, I suggest a small step but significant beginning could be for us all to explore our own ‘social skills’ and reflect on how we can all improve upon them.

How can we be better listeners? How can we all pause and leave a platform for autistic people to speak, to share, to enlighten the world and if we do, it won’t just educate ourselves and each other, it will mean much better lives for autistic people.

I established AUsome Ireland two years ago because I saw the need to give correct information, to challenge the preconceived ideas and to create a platform to elevate and amplify autistic voices. In 2019, AUsome organised Ireland’s first ever conference with only autistic presenters, one of whom was non-speaking.

This March we have 10 more autistic voices who will share not only their experience, but also their expertise on various topics relating to autistic people. It is a huge learning opportunity for politicians, media, parents, carers, autistic kids, teens and adults, teachers, SNAs and professionals who work with us.

AUsome Ireland will also be running a second conference in November which will focus on minorities within our minority and AAC users (people who are non-speaking and use iPads and devices to communicate).

We encourage you to engage with the conference, education and learning are never wasted and can be an opportunity to work open-handedly with those in our own communities who don’t need extra, or more, or special supports; they just need to be included and heard.

For more info on our conferences and training please visit www.konfidentkidz.ie or Ausome Ireland on Facebook.