Mark Lever - Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society

Chief Executive, Mark Lever, is leaving our charity today. In this interview with Your Autism, our members’ magazine, he reflects on his 11 years at the helm, autism awareness then and now and what he’s learned…

What attracted you to the role at the National Autistic Society?

When I was approached about the job, I didn’t know anything about autism. But when I found out more, what came across loud and clear was the lack of fairness in the system. All the reports I read highlighted the battles that many parents had to face just to get basic education for their children or any sort of support. Plus, autism didn’t seem to be particularly well-known. It was a great opportunity to try and do something about that.

You’ve said the first campaign you worked on was I Exist, about making people aware of autistic adults and their needs…

Yes, that campaign was to make the public aware that autism isn’t just about children. Autistic children grow up into autistic adults. For me that captures the greatest shift we’ve managed to achieve.

We’ve gone from a world of having to campaign to tell people that actually adults are autistic too, to campaigns about employment and autism-friendly workplaces.

I’ve seen the impact of that increase in awareness on a personal level too. When I started, I had no family connection with autism but during my time here, my second son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Edward’s just coming to the end of a work placement year with a firm and I just think that 11 years ago, the chances of an organisation providing support for an autistic person to do that would probably have been non-existent. So on a personal level, I’ve seen the changes our charity has made.

How does autism awareness compare now with 11 years ago?

Our research shows autism awareness levels are much higher and the public understand a lot of people are autistic. The challenge is converting that awareness into understanding, as levels of understanding are still quite low. Although if you go back 11 years, the reference point for autism was Rain Man. At least now we’ve got a whole range of awareness films that we’ve produced that really give people the opportunity to see straight away what life can be like for an autistic person. So things have moved on a lot but we still need to really improve understanding.

What are your proudest achievements?

Having a far greater involvement of autistic people in our campaigning work. All of our work must be underpinned by autistic voices. And then you look at our various campaign wins, including the Autism Act, the first ever autism-specific piece of legislation.

One of our lower profile campaigns was called Careless, but what it did was help retain the eligibility criteria for autistic adults for social care. For me, that was one of my proudest campaigns because of the way we responded so quickly to a need and persuaded the Secretary of State not to change the eligibility criteria. I remember sitting in a car park at the 11th hour, talking to the minister about it.

But what actually makes me most proud is going to services and schools and seeing the autistic people we are supporting happy, doing the things they want to do and having access to an education. We’ve got incredibly dedicated staff who make a massive difference to people’s lives.

If you could change one thing for autistic people, what would it be?

At the moment we make a big fuss when an organisation becomes an autism-friendly employer. We present them with certificates and that’s wonderful.

But I want autism-friendly employers to become something that we just take for granted.

If Scope presented employers with a certificate when they put down ramps for wheelchair users, it would be embarrassing wouldn’t it? You’d think, why are we making such a fuss about doing this? But actually it’s no different from saying we expect employers to accommodate and make adjustments for autistic people. So I’m not knocking the fact that we do this work – but that’s the change I want to see, that we take it for granted and we don’t have to make a big fuss about it. And it’s embarrassing for employers and organisations if they’re not being autism-friendly.

What are you going on to do next?

I’m going to be the first Chief Executive of a new start-up charity called Helpforce. It aims to increase the engagement and quality of volunteering across the NHS.

Any words of advice to your successor?

Well what advice can I give anybody? I’m sure my successor will do this, but it’s really important to keep talking to autistic people and their families to stay connected. There’s the famous phrase, 'when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person'. It is so true.

 

This is based on an interview that appears in the latest issue of our members’ magazine, Your Autism. You can find out more about the magazine and the other benefits of becoming a member here.

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