COLUMN: Spreading the word about autism

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Today is the start of World Autism Awareness Week at School and local teachers will be using this annual event to help spread the word about why it’s so important to understand and accept autism.

The National Autistic Society says that at least one per cent of the UK population has autism, which equates to around 3,000 people in Doncaster alone.

Autism is a lifelong development disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life, it’s not a disease or illness and it cannot be cured.

Some autistic people say the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them anxiety. In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life can be harder.

A diagnosis following an assessment is the formal way of identifying autism, usually by a team of specialists that often includes a speech and language therapist, paediatrician and psychologist.

We recently made some changes to enable Doncaster’s school-based special educational needs co-ordinators to make referrals, as well as health visitors and school nurses.

A strategy group made up of local organisations and parents in the borough has overseen the development of a local autism charter. It’s a set of standards that organisations can meet to make them more autism friendly. For schools, the standards are based on those set out by the Autism Education Trust.

The group asked Doncaster pupils to design a charter mark ‘logo’ to promote the scheme, which attracted around 100 entries. Jaimason Reast-Edwards, from Cantley’s Hawthorn Primary School, is pictured alongside with his winning artwork which earned him the prize of a family visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

In Doncaster, we’ve been working on reducing the waiting lists for an assessment as we have a higher number of referrals compared to similar areas to ours in other parts of the country. Two new clinical psychologists will be appointed, bringing the number working locally to three, and we anticipate that they will be able to carry out around 30 assessments a month, which will start to bring the waiting list down considerably.

We realised that we needed to improve the service for local people and this year we will spend around 10 times more on assessments than we did a decade ago.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and I’m pleased to see that local parents of children with autism are involved in helping to develop the service. Kirsty Gilgour, vice chair of Little Rainbows Autism Group, which meets weekly near to my surgery at Bentley, says that everything that can be done is being done. We’ve still got some way to go but we are heading in the right direction.