01 April, 2021 | Posted by Samantha Cooney

World Autism Awareness Day: 'How Will the World Treat My Child?'

World Autism Awareness Day 2021 Portobello Institute

There are many elements of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) that require our immediate, on-going and compassionate awareness.

The names of too many children remain stagnant on waiting lists for essential services. Too few school places are available in settings equipped to meet a diverse range of needs. The worries of parents, teachers, special needs assistants and principals are palpable.

Yes, there are many elements of ASD that deserve your attention on Autism Awareness Day and beyond. As we wave blue flags, change our social media profiles to include blue frames and celebrate our progress (and indeed there is much to celebrate), I propose our awareness needs to move beyond the classroom.

I have had the privilege of working with children and their families very soon after diagnosis which can be an extremely difficult time for families. The worries of parents share a common theme: ‘How will the world treat my child?’

Stepping into the world of ASD, parents find that among the stress, worry and fear are compassionate educators, a growing social awareness, ASD friendly initiatives and so on. There is compassion. There truly is much to celebrate. So much progress has been made. There is even Ireland’s first ‘Autism Friendly’ town, Clonakilty in Co. Cork.

As a society we need to shift our awareness beyond the classroom and create an ‘Autism Friendly Island’, and I see no better country fit to do just that! The land of Saints and Scholars is also the land of kindness and laughter. Let’s look to supports at further and higher education for persons with ASD so they may avail of the same opportunities as their neurotypical peers. Employment opportunities are scarce for individuals with ASD which is often in direct contrast to the abundance of skills, talents and work ethics of these individuals.

At Portobello Institute, our SNAs, teachers and early years’ professionals are trained to promote independence, empowerment and confidence in the children they work alongside. In this way, we can support children with ASD in living empowering and fulfilling lives in wider society.

It is imperative that we as a society create pathways for these individuals to participate in society, as is their right. We can achieve this in simple and effective ways.

For example, if you are a business owner, do you have an employment inclusion policy? Does your college or university run support programmes you can become involved in such as peer-to-peer mentoring? Ask your local Councillors and TDs about their efforts towards an ‘Autism Friendly Island’.

In my time working in intervention, home tuition and primary education, I have loved every second of it. I have wondered with children who view the world in such a unique way. I have worked on teams alongside inspiring professionals that see the innate potential and value in every child regardless of the manifestation of ASD. There is so much love in this sector. All that we as a sector ask of you the wider society, as we help prepare these wonderful children for adulthood, is that you treat them with kindness, compassion and value. They have so much to contribute to this world. Please create the space for them to do just that.

Our awareness needs to move beyond the classroom so that we can address these gaps in our society and create meaningful bridges. Our awareness needs to move beyond the classroom, so we progress as a nation towards meaningful inclusion. Our awareness needs to move beyond the classroom so that we can comfort parents when they ask us, ‘how will the world treat my child?’ and we can confidently say ‘as though they were our own’.

The culture of ‘Fáilte’, so world renowned and praised, assures me that we are capable of doing this and more. We can’t change the structures of society overnight, but a meaningful change to our awareness will create a powerful ripple effect that we owe to future generations.

I feel the words of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney mirror this sentiment: “I can't think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people's understanding of what's going on in the world.”

By Samantha Cooney, SNA Lecturer at Portobello Institute, see more about Samantha here

#LightItupBlue #WorldAutismAwarenessDay