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Creating more inclusive environments for people who experience autism

by Nov 05, 2012 No Comments

The audience is seated, waiting for the screening of the latest blockbuster to begin. It is the cinema experience we all know and enjoy, but if you look closely you will notice there are some subtle differences. For instance, the sound has been turned down and the lights left up at a low level. The trailers have been removed also, to reduce anxiety, and people have been allowed to bring in their own foods to help them cater for their special diets. Filmgoers have also been told they can feel free to make a noise and walk or run around the cinema as nobody is going to complain and spoil their fun.

Since August last year, autism-friendly film screenings have been held across the country in an effort to create more inclusive environments for people who experience autism.

The partnership between the not-for-profit Dimensions, an organisation which supports people with autism and learning disabilities in England and Wales, and ODEON cinemas was the first of its kind in the UK and started as a one-off. But when over 3,000 people attended the first screening in more than 40 ODEON cinemas it was decided to roll the screenings out to more cinemas across the UK on a monthly basis.

Since then, more than 22,000 cinema tickets have been sold. Director of practice development at Dimensions, Lisa Hopkins, says they have been “completely floored” by the positive reaction from the autism community and says the demand for the service demonstrates there was a real need to improve access to the cinema for people with autism and learning disabilities.

“At one of the screenings I went to I met a dad who brought his two sons to the cinema – he has autism but his two sons don’t. It was the first time in his life he had ever been able to go to the cinema with his children because he was so overwhelmed by the noise and the darkness previously. His two sons were so proud of being able to go to the movies with their dad.”

The screenings can be a stepping stone to full inclusion and Hopkins says that in another instance, they even led to an employment opportunity.

“We’ve now got one person with autism in Telford near Birmingham who has been able to get a job with the ODEON cinema as a result of going to the autism-friendly films, becoming more comfortable with the cinema environment and now they have employed him. So there are some great outcomes that are coming out of people being just included in society.”

Last November the Scottish Government and COSLA set out their vision for supporting people with autism in Scotland in their joint Scottish Autism strategy, which was backed by £13.4m of resources to help deliver improvements. The strategy runs until 2015 and while it is early days, Robert Moffat, national director of the National Autistic Society, says he is pleased with progress so far, adding that the strategy has also been largely welcomed by people with autism and their families as it has raised awareness of the “hidden condition”.

“For individuals there are no outward signs so people can’t immediately see or know that people have autism. Linked to that is the whole nature of families struggling away on their own thinking that they are the only family in their locality that is dealing with this problem. So, they warmly welcome that autism has been recognised by the Scottish Government.”

The commitment of resources, as well as expertise, to address the problems people face is also welcome, he says. Last month the Scottish Government announced that £1.12m is being made available to local authorities to develop strategies and action plans, while around 30 organisations from across Scotland will receive funding through the Autism Development Fund of £644,000 to develop new support services for people with autism and their families.

Announcing the funding, Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said the funding will have “a real impact” on delivering the strategy.

“Our autism strategy was launched in November to ensure people with autism and their families are supported by the widest possible range of services including social care, education, housing and employment,” Matheson said.

“We are beginning to make a real difference to the lives of people with autism by improving support services available to people who need them. One year on, we are making good progress.”

Moffat agrees but says the challenge will be to translate the national strategy down to this local level.

“That is where it will really make a difference to families’ lives. But I think the fact that it is a partnership between [the] Scottish Government and COSLA is a step towards doing that. The recognition that government seems to recognise that a national strategy is a starting point but it actually has to make a difference at a local level. So I think that is what we should be aiming for, to translate the strategy down to a local level across all 32 local authorities.”

Another important strand of the strategy’s work is a project to map autism services across Scotland. Moffat says there is a postcode lottery of services across Scotland and so the mapping exercise is a necessary development.

“This exercise is much needed as it will map out what is there but more importantly, where the gaps are. We are very much hoping the Scottish Government will then take that final piece of research and use that to address the gaps and achieve consistency in service.”

Alan Somerville, chief executive, Scottish Autism, has also been impressed with the “mature” approach of the Scottish strategy and says there are now some really important projects under way that will grow our understanding of autism spectrum disorder, build on our knowledge base and accumulate evidence for good practice in Scotland. In particular, he highlights a study on microsegmentation that is being led by Professor Tommy MacKay of Strathclyde University and Professor Martin Knapp of the LSE.

“The idea of microsegmentation goes against the grain of social services where people don’t like to discriminate between different types of the condition because it is a spectrum. But the spectrum goes from people who need 24/7 care to people like Gary McKinnon,” Somerville explains.

“So that is a vast range of abilities and obviously not all of those individuals need the same sort of package.”

Somerville hopes the research will help establish the escapable costs of autism through early and appropriate interventions.

“For the first time the minister will have at his disposal a menu of costed interventions and will be able to understand what kind of return, talking in purely financial terms, the Government will get for an investment in a particular area.”

And yet, while Scotland is actively trying to improve its understanding of autism, Somerville says some parts of Europe still don’t recognise that it exists.

“Europe is enormous and there is an enormous range of people but in practice, some people don’t recognise autism exists. Some of the eastern European countries are back in the Middle Ages in their attitudes to disability and the French treat it as something which you can basically control rather than support.”

However, while he says the fuse burns slowly in Europe, he believes they are open to big ideas.

Somerville is keen to export the success of the Scottish strategy, as well as those from around the UK, and as such the Celtic Nations Autism Partnership will be hosting a reception at the European Parliament in Brussels on 6 November about the potential for an autism strategy for Europe.

“There is a vast range of things that are going on and there is genuine interest that there are these four tiny wee countries on the edge of Europe who are in agreement, broadly, about the way to do it,” he says.

While this longer-term strategic thinking and planning is undoubtedly important, back at home, Hopkins says the key message for them is that little changes can also make a big difference.

Demand for the autism-friendly screenings has been so high that in addition to the partnership with ODEON, Dimensions will soon launch another monthly initiative with Cineworld, which will double the opportunities for people to attend screenings and Hopkins says it is their aim that people will have the chance to go to an autism-friendly screening every weekend.

However, she adds that the overwhelming response to the cinema initiative indicates that there are a lot of people who are struggling to access everyday public spaces. Hopkins says they conducted a poll to determine if there are other public spaces people would like to see made more autism friendly. Restaurants and supermarkets were the most identified places so Hopkins says they are now working with national chains in both areas to try and address some of the barriers.

“One is queuing up as queuing up can be really tough for people with autism and it can cause a lot of anxiety to have to wait,” she explains.

“We also need a wider range of caffeine and gluten-free food in supermarkets. People say that when they go to the toilet they don’t want to have the loud hand dryers, that auditory noise can cause sensitivity for people. Turning off the music in supermarkets could be useful so when you go in it is a little bit quieter. Providing a map in advance of where foods are located in a supermarket so that it can be predictable for people as to which aisle they need to go down before they get there so they can plan a route, that predictability is really, really important.

“So it is a few changes like that that people are asking for and we are hopeful that we can make that happen.”

Making such small accommodations can open up a whole new world for people with autism and their families by enabling them to share in everyday experiences.

“That is really the message that we are trying to get out there: people with autism can be included in society to the full extent as everybody else,” she says.

“They just need a few little changes to be made and then we can celebrate autism because we will see the gift that people with autism have to offer society.”

Katie Mackintosh Katie Mackintosh

Katie is Holyrood magazine's Health Correspondent and has been with the magazine since 2005. She has an MA in Sociology with Gender from Edinburgh University and a post graduate diploma in Journalism from Napier University. Katie has twice been named PPA Scotland Feature Writer of the Year, in 2008 and again in 2009, and was shortlisted for magazine writer of the year at the Scottish Press Awards in 2012. She is an Aberdonian by birth, a Glaswegian by nature, who now lives in Fife with her...

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