Opinion | 29 July 2016

The quiet revolution

We’ve all witnessed it – in the shopping centre, at the movies, on the tram. A child screaming and hitting out, a desperate mother trying to keep it together.

Passersby looking down their noses, some tut, some offering well meaning advice. A collective silent judgment about the mother’s ability to parent her own child.

But a growing number of Australians are beginning to view scenes like these with a renewed understanding.

According to a recent national poll, half of Australians either have, or know someone, on the autism spectrum.

And with the National Disability Insurance Scheme rolling out and supporting the inclusion and participation of more people with disability like autism in the community, we have a responsibility to ensure everyone has the opportunity to fully contribute to our society.

This is a revolution. In days gone by, many people on the autism spectrum were locked away out of sight in institutions, treated poorly, and spent their entire lives excluded from the rest of society.

This revolution is not just about providing support and services to people with disability, but also about the broader community learning how best to support them to be able to contribute and fully participate in community life.

The Essential poll conducted this month revealed that while a clear majority of Australians (72 per cent) believe schools, workplaces and the wider community need to have a better understanding of how to support people on the autism spectrum, only 29 per cent of Australians said they would know how to.

This is a global trend, championed by American autism advocate and author Steve Silberman, who says we will all benefit if we don’t try to box people on the autism spectrum into our world view, but actually change the world a little to make it easier for them to live in.

In Australia, Scienceworks and the Melbourne and Immigration museums now provide priority access to children on the autism spectrum so they don’t get overwhelmed waiting in long queues.  Village and Hoyts are screening regular autism-friendly sessions which turn the volume down and keep low level lighting on.

Increasingly local councils are providing ‘quiet’ areas in playgrounds and sensory play experiences. Social scripts, which allow parents to go through what to expect with their children before they leave the house, are being produced by recreation and entertainment venues.

Simple changes like these are, for autistic people, the equivalent of ramps and rails for people who use wheelchairs.

Our own All In Victorian Autism Conference in September will provide an autism friendly space by doing simple things like turning off hand dryers in the bathrooms, establishing quiet areas and providing live captioning of speakers.

This quiet revolution in disability support is making the world a much better place for autistic people, reducing anxiety and the resulting behaviors from being overwhelmed, and enabling the rest of the community to engage with them in a different, much more inclusive way.

As a result, awareness about autism is growing, tolerance is becoming acceptance and a deeper understanding of how each of us provide support is being fostered.

While we have made leaps and bounds since the days of institutions, we still have a long way to go to achieve widespread and deeper understanding.

Simply providing people on the autism spectrum more time to respond to questions, being aware that noise and light, queues and crowds can be really challenging, and providing quiet space and time, are the first steps.

And the biggest support of all is not passing judgment on that mother in the shopping centre.


Steve Silberman will present at the Victorian Autism Conference, 1 & 2 Sept.

For more information visit: www.vac2016.com.au


Join the conversation

  • Philippa Hart

    We are now modifying institutions to cater to the growing number of people with autism and we are adapting to the idea that people have different learning styles and behavioral responses. We are learning the significance of sensory sensitivities and about the relationship of gut health to mind/body function. These are the positives that have come from the autism epidemic (Prevalence 1 in 5000 1980’s, 1 in 68 2012 CDC).

    At what point are we going to start questioning why there has been such a dramatic rise in numbers of people with autism? Genetics changes do not occur within 30 years. When are people going to start listening to parent’s and carer’s about this rather than government/media spin? How is society going to function and pay for this massive rise in neurological damage?

    • Eliza Andrews

      There has not been a rise in the numbers of people with Autism. There is more awareness about the condition, so that adults who have struggled with social interactions since they were children are now seeking the diagnosis, and parents are recognising the symptoms in their children at a younger age. The sharp increase in ASD numbers is also due to reclassification of diagnoses. If you look at the actual statistics, you will see that the numbers of ASD cases increased at exactly the same time the numbers of people with “intellectual disability” decreased. Before the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – the Helping Children with Autism Scheme provided more funding to children with an ASD diagnosis than they would have received with an Intellectual Disability diagnosis. Due to this many parents sought the diagnosis for their children, and some clinicians classified kids as having ASD, even though an ID diagnosis would have been more appropriate. How is the society going to function? Hopefully with more awareness and better funding, children with ASD will receive vital intensive early intervention, that will help them become independent and gain employment. People with ASD have always been around and have contributed immensely to the society. ASD is a developmental disorder – and individuals with it are not neurologically damaged – just part of the neurodiverse spectrum.

    • Blake

      I agree, Philippa. We had maybe one or two ‘disruptive’ students in each year at school when I was growing up, and they were generally disruptive due to issues at home. There was one boy with Asperger’s – he was in the year above me. That was it. Nowadays, there are multiple children in each class with Asperger’s-type behaviour. It is so widespread, it has become mainstream. This is not simply because of reclassification: there was nothing to reclassify 40-60 years ago. People are simply accepting the marked increase in autism. There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant has the answers, for those willing to remove their blinkers and do the research. My other issue is that nutrition has played a major role in reducing autistic traits in some children – why isn’t this a more widely recognised and used therapy in Australia?

  • mike

    But why do you want to put people on this so-called “spectrum”? People are sensitive to various degrees, but creating a new class of victims is selfish and not responsible. You are creating a new class of hypochondria and self pity, not helping those in true need.

    You should be ashamed of yourselves!

    • Eliza Andrews

      Your comment is so obtuse on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. People on the Autism spectrum are not victims and are not hypochondriacs. ASD is a real condition – medically verified and widely studied. To be diagnosed with ASD people have to have all the symptoms stipulated in the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria . The reason why parents seek the diagnosis for the children, is so that they have access to funding for vital therapy. With intensive early intervention, even children on the more “severe” end of the spectrum can become independent and find employment. My own son, who was diagnosed with severe ASD at 2&1/2 now attends a mainstream primary school thanks to the intensive therapy he’s been having, which is funded by the NDIS. He wants to be a scientist! Adults often seek the diagnosis so that it helps them understand their condition – and it helps them connect with others affected by ASD. You may not realise just how diverse the ASD community is – and even non-verbal individuals live fulfilling lives and even have internet blogs! Educate yourself before you start commenting on something you know nothing about.