Scottish Government attempts to draw up policies on autism have treated autistic people “appallingly” and suffer from “well-intentioned ignorance” and “prejudice”, The Ferret has been told.
A recent government “engagement exercise” on autism policy was criticised by autistic people’s organisations for not being fully accessible to autistic people and partially excluding them.
Government officials have accepted that there have been problems, and apologised. They are now trying to work out new arrangements for developing autism policies.
Autism affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autistic people’s experiences of autism varies widely between individuals, partly depending on where they are on the autistic spectrum. There are estimated to be around 50,000 people in Scotland on the autistic spectrum.
Autism Network Scotland (ANS), which is funded by the Scottish Government, aims to be a hub for autistic people and professionals. Based at the University of Strathclyde, it has been singled out for criticism.
One former member of the ANS governance group, Michael Dawson, accused officials of failing to understand those on the autistic spectrum. “When it comes to dealing with autistic people and allowing autistic people to work as equals, there’s still an underlying prejudice towards us amongst the people who work in what I’ve come to term the autism industry,” he said.
This is not because they are deliberately trying to hold autistic people back, he argued. Rather, it was due to “well-intentioned ignorance” on the part of civil servants, professionals and autism experts.
According to Dawson, through delivering services many professionals are used to working with autistic individuals on the more severe end of the autistic spectrum. “That kind of image sticks, so it’s always the classic autistic person who can’t manage themselves and needs a lot of help,” he said.
“It’s an old paradigm of autistic people. It’s ignorance of the whole spectrum of autistic people.”
Donna, an autistic woman active in Scotland who did not want her real name to be used, was scathing about ANS. “Part of what ANS is supposed to be doing is engaging with autistic people – so they say,” she said.
“They are in fact acting as a barrier to autistic people’s involvement. Since they have been in place under their new name, they have distanced themselves from autistic people. They obviously feel superior and expert. They treat us appallingly.”
In October and November 2017, ANS administered an engagement exercise aiming to capture people’s views on the government’s autism strategy. This consisted of an online survey and four live engagement events in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness.
An autistic-led group called Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh (AMASE) said in an open letter that they had “some serious concerns” about the way the exercise has been conducted “particularly in its accessibility and efforts to include autistic people”.
Sonny Hallett, chair of AMASE, told The Ferret: “It’s really important that autistic people and our lived experiences are listened to. You wouldn’t have a consultation on trans policy without trans people being involved so the same should apply to autistic people and autism policy.”