Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow want to become the UK’s first ‘autism-firendly’ cities. That’s admirable, but what does it mean in practice?
According to Autism Together, an autism-friendly city is one in which people with the condition – like me – can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’
That’s all well and good, but a truly autism-friendly city isn’t possible. It would inconvenience too many people. Big cities are supposed to be loud, vibrant places.
We don’t need such tokenistic gestures, but that’s all we get because the issues we face can’t be solved so easily. By supporting such schemes, politicians are using my condition to score points. Andy Burnham actually appeared at an autism-friendly hustings before the Manchester mayoral election. That’s a nice photo opportunity, but is he willing to do the hard work that’s necessary to improve the lives of people with autism?
There are a few specific measures that can be taken, and examples of venues making reasonable accommodations.
I don’t go to football matches because they are too loud and the height of the stand gives me vertigo. Sympathetic stewards can’t help with that. A sensory room like the one at Sunderland can. The club has created a sound-proof space where fans with autism can enjoy the match.
That’s great, but it’s hardly the most pressing issue. If politicians actually want to help people with autism, they need to address the most important problems we face. Take employment, for example. More than three quarters of people living with autism in the UK want to work – but the full-time employment rate is only 16 per cent.
More tools should be available to help those with autism in the workplace. Some people with the condition have trouble with the traditional interview format. Difficulty maintaining eye contact creates an immediate disadvantage. Microsoft has designed an interview process that begins to address the problem. It’s based on a workshop and an internship scheme, which allows people with autism to let their abilities speak for themselves.
Unfortunately the vast majority of people with autism aren’t equipped to work for Microsoft; the idea that we can all be computer programmers is a damaging cliché. By giving other companies incentives to implement such schemes, politicians could make a genuine difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Another issue is that the productivity of those with autism can drop off if there is sensory overload, such as bright lights and loud noises. A fund to enable workplace accommodations would help with this.
People living with autism don’t need politicians to support pie in the sky schemes. As noble as the idea of an ‘autism-friendly’ city may seem, it takes focus away from more important issues. I’m left wondering: is this policy really about making the lives of people with autism easier, or is it just about making politicians look good?