Autism Awareness Week: Let’s back Labour’s Neurodiversity Manifesto

It is essential all young people are taught about neuro-diversity so we can understand and listen to our peers' needs.

The battle for equality and inclusivity can only be achieved by listening to disabled and neuro-diverse people. Urgent action is needed to stop bullying of autistic children in school and to improve the job prospects for autistic adults. The 2016 Labour neurodiversity manifesto, shows the way forward. An injection of funds is needed and a change of attitude.

The disability rights and independent living movements have been heroic in their legal and social battle to demonstrate that different does not signify inferior. The late, great Stephen Hawking exemplified that first and foremost we are human. Hawking, an emblem of human intellect and endeavour was also severely disabled. This humanity is worth remembering amidst dehumanizing and detached discussions of disability like ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

Our understanding of neurodiversity has improved. The attitude has shifted from seeking ‘cures’ to achieving potential. Positive role models like Chris Packham, the wildlife presenter with Asperger’s syndrome, are ambassadors proving that difference is not a limit.

However; being atypical means facing enormous difficulties. The anti-bullying alliance reports that three quarters of autistic kids suffer bullying and surveys show just 15 percent of autistic adults find full-time employment and only 9 percent have part-time work. The spectrum of autism is wide, from severely disabling to relatively mild, but these statistics must be improved.

Pupils with special needs are six times more likely to be excluded. In some cases, special schools are necessary. Yet an astonishing forty percent of parents with autistic children report their child as having been illegally excluded (Ambitious about Autism survey). Clearly the law forbidding discrimination and requiring reasonable adjustments is not being met.

Seventy percent of autistic children are in mainstream schools and the support must be there. It takes time and resources to adjust for sensory, learning, and behavioural needs. Too many autistic children are excluded from main stream education because they might score less well in exams and the emphasis of our underfunded, pressure cooker, education system is about achieving high pass levels.

The actor Sally Phillips recently wrote an article in The Guardian explaining why her Downs Syndrome son belongs in mainstream school. She argues convincingly that inclusion is also vital for typical kids: how can we build empathy and celebrate diversity if we don’t mix? The Finns, the swots of every educational league table, have just two percent of disabled pupils go to special schools, the rest are supported in mainstream. This proves that- with the right support- inclusion is positive for schools.

My mum is a special needs advisory teacher and my brother is an autistic support worker and TA for children expelled from their previous schools. The difficulties with behaviour, socialising, communication can be colossal. This is why it is essential all young people are taught about neuro-diversity, so we can understand and listen to our peers' needs.

John McDonnell’s pledge for a neurodiversity shadow minister and his support for ‘the Neurodiversity Manifesto’ published in 2016 by the Labour Party Autism Steering group is hugely significant. The neuro-diverse voice, with the motto ‘nothing about us without us’ offers an opportunity for genuine inclusivity.  For instance, the manifesto’s call for comprehensive application of the principle of Universal Design would make the built environment less distressing and more accessible. Crucially, the manifesto is written by autistic members: giving long overdue representation.

The key to acceptance is education: understanding and empathy is needed. This manifesto is a platform for commitment, dialogue, and could stimulate real change. Labour has a proud history of social innovation and the concept of celebrating and politically backing neurodiversity could become consensus. Building inclusivity involves cost: we must continually challenge cuts and commit to reversing any undermining of special needs support. This autism awareness week, let’s seek out neuro-diverse voices and protest for parliamentary protection.

Ellie Vincent is a Young Fabian and contributing writer.

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