Above: Pictured is Catriona and Eugene Scally, Clonakilty SuperValu, alongside Martin Kelleher, Managing Director, SuperValu and Adam Harris, founder of AsIAm, at the unveiling of the official Autism Friendly Designation sign in Clonakilty.
Adam Harris set up AsIAm five years ago based on his own experiences growing up as a young autistic person in Ireland. AsIAm is an organisation working to build a more inclusive Ireland for the autism community. Adam was recently in West Cork to grant Autism Friendly accreditation from AsIAm to the town of Clonakilty – a first for any town in Ireland.
“When I was first diagnosed almost 20 years ago most people had never heard of autism and they certainly didn’t know someone on the spectrum,” says Adam.
A study from the National Council for Special Education in 2016 found that one in 65 children in the community had a diagnosis of autism. There are many more who have never been diagnosed.
“While we’ve mainstreamed autistic people, we haven’t necessarily mainstreamed the knowledge and understanding of how we include autistic people. What my organisation aims to do is build a more autism friendly society, a society where autistic people can do all the things that non-autistic people can do and everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential.
“The small changes that people can make could literally mean the difference between an autistic person being stuck at home and that same person being able to thrive out in the community and also contributing their talents because there are huge strengths to being autistic as well.”
Partnering with SuperValu, in particular Scally’s SuperValu, Clonakilty, AsIAm has delivered appropriate tailored training to businesses and organisations in Clonakilty. “We had huge uptake, which was amazing. Clonakilty is definitely now the most informed community on autism in the country,” says Adam.
“Anybody can say they’re autism friendly but what does it really mean,” he continues. The people of Scally’s SuperValu in Clonakilty really wanted to develop a framework that meant something for people with autism. What we tried to do was identify some of the areas most challenging for autistic people and the practical but achievable changes that could be made.”
Just one of the things that businesses and organisations had to commit to doing was developing a visual guide.
“For an autistic person, going anywhere new can be very difficult and cause a lot of anxiety,” explains Adam. “We developed visual guides, which essentially tell you what’s going to happen from when you arrive at the business to when you leave. These will be great for autistic people living in the community but also I think it has huge potential to help more families with autistic children go on holiday.”
These visual guides will all be housed on the clonakilty.ie website.
“What was important to us was recognising that being autism friendly is a journey, an ongoing process, an ongoing dialogue,” says Adam. “There were some things that couldn’t possibly be achieved in the three or four months of training, so the town had to develop a three-year plan. There will be constant development and Clonakilty will be evaluated annually. For example a sensory garden will be installed, changes made to the playgound, an ongoing annual awareness programme in the town.”
Businesses in Clonakilty can sign up at any time and get the support they need to become autism friendly.
“We thought we’d have our work cut out for us,” says Adam “it felt very daunting to have to get a whole community behind a project like this but to be honest we selected the right town…it was just pushing an open door all of the time. The community spirit has been overwhelming and people couldn’t do enough to help us, which is really heartwarming. There is a really positive attitude towards autism in Clonakilty, which is very exciting.”
AsIAm also delivered ‘The Autism Experience’ Exhibition in Clonakilty. Over 300 people, including a large number of schoolchildren, attended the pop-up exhibition, which aims to engage young people in gaining a greater insight into what it is like to live with Autism.
“I often say that Ireland has become a very autism aware country in that everyone has heard of the condition and most people know someone with the condition, however it’s to bridge that gap from awareness to understanding,” says Adam. It’s hard to for people not on the spectrum to imagine what it’s like to be autistic. This exhibition bridges that gap enabling visitors to ‘step into the shoes’ of someone with the condition.”
Last year AsIAm made a submission to the HSE Review of Autism Services. “We highlighted a lot of the shortcomings and made recommendations of changes we’d like to see made. This includes for example a key worker being identified for each family as they go through the diagnostic process; better pathways post-diagnosis; and also ongoing support into adulthood,” says Adam.
“There’s a phenomenal body of work that needs to be done by the government to properly support autistic people,” says Adam. There is a huge waiting list for diagnoses and services and we need much better investment and support in our education system but we also need more support for young autistic adults. It’s bizarre to give support to autistic children growing up and then when a person reaches a point where they can become independent to remove those supports.
“We need to plan and support. We’re advocating for a National Autism Strategy because we don’t have one…”