By Sharon Gomez and Matt Tomlin
World Autism Awareness Day falls on April 2 every year to raise awareness about people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The overall message of the day is that autism is on a spectrum, meaning it affects everyone differently. Specialists encourage people not to think of autism as a linear scale and that you are not more or less autistic, not higher or lower functioning depending on where you are on the spectrum. Rather it is described as neither a disease nor a psychological issue, but as being a condition which cannot be “cured.”
It aims to raise awareness and remove the stigmas that continue to surround the disorder. In conjunction with the day, AP Cymru – The Autism Charity, hosted an exhibition at Cardiff University’s Hadyn Ellis building on Tuesday, with over 30 exhibitors and guest speakers showcasing their events, projects, and workshops.
Gair Rhydd interviewed the Founder and Director of AP Cymru, Karen Sullivan, and the Operations Manager, Donna Marshall, about the event and their plans for future support for students with Autism.
They explained that AP Cymru is an entirely self-funded charity supporting families through workshops and clinics. The charity expands upon the Welsh Government Strategy to raise awareness and understanding of autism in communities across Wales.
The dedicated core staff all have autistic children themselves and work tirelessly to raise the funds needed to ensure the families who rely on them receive the support they need.
When asked about the future, the pair stressed the need for more enthusiastic volunteers, social media campaigners, and even marathon participants to run for a good cause.
Only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment. The Achieve through Work Experience Programme with GO Wales strives to change that by creating shadowing and placement opportunities for eligible students who face barriers in securing work experience.
They help students develop their job-related skills, knowledge, and commercial awareness in order to increase their employability. Anita Norcott, GO Wales Project Adviser, explained that they advocate on behalf of young people on the spectrum and frequently discuss adjustments to help them thrive in the workplace.
These can be as simple as asking for sunglasses or noise-cancelling headphones during working hours to overcome the sensory sensitivity they may experience.
Also participating in the exhibition were Gig Buddies Cardiff, a befriending scheme that is helping adults with learning disabilities lead full and active social lives of their choosing.
Participants are paired with volunteers who share the same interests. They are then encouraged to attend gigs, movies, festivals, and generally engage in the arts together.
Research by the National Autistic Society suggests that autistic people are among the most isolated in the UK and are four times as likely to be lonely as the general public. Therefore, Gig Buddies is a unique project which aims to facilitate long term friendships and expand an individuals’ social circle.
Essentially, Gig Buddies promote themselves as providing an opportunity for people with autism to have meaningful community participation and develop vital support networks.
Gair Rhydd also spoke to the organiser of the event, Matthew Bareford of Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, in order to gain insight into his aims behind presenting these diverse opportunities at the exhibition.
The parent and carer of someone with autism, as well as a member of Cardiff University’s Disability Staff Network, Bareford believes what is lacking in supply is not necessarily just support networks for those with autism, but the availability of information which can lead those with autism to finding such support networks.
Commenting on how the exhibition for Autism Awareness Day could have helped cater to this, he said: “[It allows] autistic individuals, parents, carers and professionals the chance to see what is available for them in one place and gather information for them. The event also focused on the possibilities that autistic individuals have opened to them, as opposed to the negative effects that can be a factor of autism.”
Going on to speak of how the exhibition catered to a wide range of requirements for those with autism in attendance, he explained that “The event was organised in an ‘autism friendly’ way, with a dedicated quiet room, sensory tent that allowed anyone the opportunity to access it, which shows from the groups of autistic individuals who not only came to the exhibition but also wanted to stay for pro-longed periods, which as a parent of an autistic child with sensory difficulties, is something that is most certainly a sign of success.”
He wished to thank all teams who attended the exhibition to showcase their services in an approachable way. In addition, he highlighted the significance of the University in hosting other events for the week. These included a cake sale on Friday in the Hadyn Ellis Building, which fundraised for AP Cymru’s summer activities for autistic individuals, and the lighting of both the Main Building and Hadyn Ellis Building purple in order to mark Autism Awareness Week.