3 April 2018
Autism Awareness Month is the perfect time to highlight the importance of hearing the voice of young autistic people.
There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, many of these are young people and I am one of them. And you don’t hear from us often enough!
Being a young person with autism you can get lost in anxiety; worrying that people are judging you, that you are not accepted, that you sound strange when you talk. Too often we end up silencing ourselves with our self-consciousness.
I was diagnosed with Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome (a condition on the autism spectrum) when I was seven years old. People with PDA have communication and social interaction difficulties. I found school life and academic work hard. In fact I found a lot of life hard.
For a long time I didn’t know how to be a voice and didn’t want to be a voice. So, like many autistic people my instinct was to withdraw – into silence in social situations, or simply avoid those awkward situations in the first place.
But I have been fighting those instincts as hard as I can because I have learnt that if we don’t speak up for ourselves few people will. And when they do they tend to pigeonhole us – so we all lack empathy, or we’re super smart at maths, or we spend our life counting cars. In other words, we are reduced to autistic clichés.
Being part of UK Youth Voice has really helped me with this – it has given me that voice I once didn’t have. And not just to voice my views on autism but to be a voice for everything and anything. A year ago, I could not imagine speaking in front of an audience. Yet I found myself speaking at a political party conference in September in front of a group of people, and doing it left me with such a great feeling. While it was scary, it has really pushed me on to use my voice to campaign for more things, to push for the things I really care about like the right to hear from autistic people not just people who think they can be the voice for us.
The simple truth is all autistic people (like all people) are different. Autism is a spectrum. A pick ‘n’ mix salad with an infinite variety of ingredients sprinkled in different quantities and varying according to context. So for example I might be shy at work, but my close family say I never stop talking to them. Sometimes I avoid demands at home but would not dream of doing so at work.
If we don’t talk about our condition, we can’t complain that our voice is not heard. And when I say talk, I don’t just mean literally talk. Some autistic people are non-verbal, yet they can still be incredibly eloquent about their condition through other means of communication.
For a long time, I was embarrassed about my autism, but not anymore. Now I am proud to be a little bit different. Now I embrace my uniqueness, while fighting for my right to be treated as a regular member of society. What I want from life is no different what everybody else wants – the right to be heard, the right to be respected, the right to work, and the right to have our differences taken into account.
Although 70 per cent of children with autism are educated in mainstream schools, fewer than one in four school leavers with autism stay in further education, young autistic people are being lost in the system. This is not because they aren’t capable, it’s because adults do not sufficiently nurture the abilities of autistic people. Most shocking, only 16% of people with autism make it into full time employment despite 77% of autistic people actually wanting to work and being capable of working. Even among those employers most keen to hire autistic people, attitudes can still be surprising.
This is why people with autism have to speak up for ourselves, and asserts our rights and needs. Whether it’s getting the confidence to tell our fellow classmates we have autism, or speaking up about our autism at job interviews, or getting up on a stage in front of people and delivering a speech about autism. It’s time to make ourselves heard loud and clear.