Director of External Affairs Jane Harris talks about the work we're doing to improve understanding of autism in wider society.

Jane Harris, Director of External AffairsThis week, to mark the launch of our 2014-15 Annual Report, we've been giving you more information about what we've done for autistic people and their families over the last year. Today, I'm going to tell you about what we're doing to get society to understand autism better.

Getting society to understand, support and appreciate autistic people is a long-term goal of our charity. We know that too often businesses don't understand autism and so most shops, cafes, cinemas and sports grounds aren't accessible to autistic people and their families.

Similarly, many public services don't think about autism when coming up with policies, making local social services, job centres, GP surgeries and hospitals feel like hostile places to autistic people of all ages.

So what have we achieved this year? First off, we have worked with more businesses to understand autism better. From Theatre Royal in Newcastle to the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton, we have worked with more theatres to make both individual performances and the venue in general open to people on the spectrum.

Three thousand people came to the annual autism-friendly performance of the Lion King we support at the Lyceum Theatre in London. We're now working with the Royal Court Theatre in London on a performance for adults – we don't think autistic people should stop being able to go to the theatre after the age of 18!

And of course it's not just theatre – we've worked with Glasgow IMAX to get more autism-friendly screenings in place. And Queen's Park Rangers became the first football ground to sign up to our Autism Access Award – we'll be encouraging more football clubs to open their doors to autistic people.

As for public services, we have been making sure more professionals have to understand autism as part of their role. As a result of our campaigning, Health Education England will have to design training for GPs and other health professionals in autism. We know of some GPs who tell people 'not to bother getting a diagnosis', so we know this is potentially life-changing for thousands of people.

When Government came up with a new test to decide if someone could get help from social services, we and our campaigners made sure that people who need prompting to wash, dress and eat would be included. And we've been seeing new results from the Autism Act  passed over five years ago, with a new diagnostic centre starting in Staffordshire after a legal case based on the Act.

As local council budgets are cut, we have protected millions of pounds worth of autism services. In Haringey, our local branch worked with others to stop a huge cut to social care services, which would have left families, adults and children with nowhere to turn.

In Bristol, we helped to turn round a proposed cut to a shormt breaks service so that autistic children and their families can have a holiday like anyone else. We've just heard that as a result of the Bring Maisie Home campaign, one million more pounds will now be spent on mental health crisis care in Hull, helping children on the spectrum like Maisie.

But with more cuts on the horizon, we need to come up with new ways for people to get support. We will never stop fighting for better public services for autistic people – but we want to make sure that there are volunteer-led activities available too. 

We now have 113 volunteer-led local branches across the country. The men and women who lead these branches are some of the unsung heroes of the autism community. Almost every one produces a local guide explaining what services and support are available for local autistic people. These guides are the local googles of autism services and are invaluable for anyone newly diagnosed – they literally save people hundreds of hours of trying to find what they need and hundreds of hours of anguish.

But branches do much more than provide information – the Pembrokeshire branch in South Wales run a fortnightly youth club for autistic teenagers who can't go elsewhere but thanks to these volunteers they get the chance to socialise and take part in everything from computing to falconry.

The Lambeth branch have a book group and a social club for autistic adults and teenagers as well as information sessions for parents run by local autism experts.

The Moray branch has started to run a regular surf club, which has really helped to build autistic children and teenagers' confidence. And our branches in Northern Ireland have held workshops on everything from visual stories to how to apply for benefits.

If you want to see if there's a branch in your area, take a look at the directory, and if there isn’t, let us know if you want to start one!

This is only a tiny fraction of what we've achieved over the last year. It's only possible to do all this thanks to the support of thousands of campaigners, hundreds of volunteers and donations from loyal supporters. Thank you to everyone who has contributed – we know there is much, much more to do to get society to understand, support and appreciate everyone on the autism spectrum. But we are determined to keep at it and inspired by the dedication and persistence of all our supporters.

Jane Harris
Director of External Affairs
The National Autistic Society

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