World Autism Awareness Day falls on 2 April each year, but as that was on a weekend, we held a breakfast to acknowledge it during the week in Parliament.
It was an honour to be asked by Autism New Zealand to host the event, which was well attended by MPs from across the political spectrum.
The keynote speaker was Lachlan McKay – a young man with ASD who is also International Ambassador in Aotearoa-New Zealand for the Council for a World Parliament of Religions, and an Executive Member of the Wellington Inter-faith Council.
In his speech, Lachlan gave us a clear analysis of the need to support people with Autism Spectrum Disorders so that that they can fulfil their potential. Many brilliant people – from Bill Gates to the person in the office next to you – have experienced ASD. The call “don’t judge us until you know us” is a powerful and valuable statement. Lachlan reminded us that all over the world, we are wasting the potential of people with ASD.
Lachlan and I both spoke about a sad incident in Christchurch where Arie Smith, a young man with ASD who responded to the trauma of the earthquake by exercising his hobby of collecting light fittings, was apprehended and allegedly beaten up as a looter. The pictures on the internet certainly suggest a violent assault.
Arie Smith’s case highlights the need for understanding by all of us (particularly people with powers of arrest) that people with ASD might behave in a way we don’t recognise. It is vital that authority figures are alert to this, when 40,000 citizens live with ASD and are entitled to their human rights.
In a recession, with the threat of welfare cutbacks and increased work-testing for people with disabilities, people with autism are getting worried. I have already had people who find staying employed due to their autism very tough coming and expressing great fear about the future.
In this context we will need Autism New Zealand and other groups a to keep autism awareness in front of decision-makers at all times. This breakfast was a good start.