April is autism awareness month – but what the charity Scottish Autism really wants to promote is understanding and acceptance.
“That’s really the critical thing,” said the charity’s Charlene Tait. “It’s all very well to be aware but a little understanding can go a long way to making life easier for people with autism.”
That’s why this year the charity has chosen to use the month to stage a remarkable new exhibition which creates a real picture of autism.
Autism in Focus features a diverse range of photographs, all captured by people in Scotland who live with the condition or by members of their family.
Each is accompanied by a personal story.
Charlene, who is director of autism practice and research at Scottish Autism, said: “At the beginning of this year we asked people in the autism community what they wished others knew about being autistic.
“We received photographs and accompanying stories from 100 individuals and families who wanted to show the ‘real picture’ of autism.
“It is a powerful collection which evokes a range of emotions; some are funny and uplifting and others more poignant, depicting the challenges and adversity people face.”
Autism is a lifelong, developmental condition that affects the way a person communicates, interacts and processes information.
It can affect the ability to understand, process and use language or to understand the feelings of others.
And as it affects one in every 100 people, there’s a fair chance we’ll all come across people with autism.
Charlene said: “It’s key people recognise that they will encounter people with autism in all walks of life.
“If you’ve got children they will undoubtedly have autistic peers; you might have workmates, a neighbour, a friend.
“It’s about taking time to understand and maybe offer a little bit of support and understanding and accepting people who think and see the world differently.
“So, if you see a child in a supermarket and it looks like they are having a tantrum, it might be they are finding it overwhelming.
“People are very quick to make judgements and a little understanding can make a huge difference.”
People on the spectrum also have skills, abilities and talents that, with a little support, can flourish.
Charlene said: “A huge part of what we do is allowing people to assert their own voice and their own choices.
“There are so many myths about autism; they never give eye contact, they have no sense of humour, they never form relationships.
“Well, there are autistic people who are mothers and fathers and who have jobs .
“Yes, there are challenges but they have also got a lot to offer. If you’re an employer or a charity you should be asking, ‘what are the ways we can allow them to shine and use their skills and talents’.”
Among those who have contributed is Catherine Simpson from Edinburgh.
She submitted a photographic portrait of her 22 year old autistic daughter Nina Mega, a University of Edinburgh student who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was 10.
Catherine said: “I wanted to share this photo of Nina which shows her as she is: A cool and confident young woman who is making her way in the world.
“It is not the image most people associate with autism. Nina doesn’t see her condition as a barrier or some sort of disability.
“It is a key aspect of her character which helps define the person she is and it’s somethingwhich she is proud of.
“Life before Nina’s diagnosis was very difficult. We didn’t understand what was happening with our child and felt very isolated.
“After the diagnosis we worried about the future and what would happen as she grew up.
“As a family we have all come to terms with all of this but there is still a ways to go to build understanding around autism.”
Also sharing their child’s story are Ryan and HeatherO’Donnell from Lochgelly in Fife.
Their photo is of Alfie, who was diagnosed with autism two years ago.
Heather said: “Immediately following Alfie’s diagnosis, we invested a lot of our time and energy into looking for a cure.”
They have no regrets but soon realised that the best thing they could do was embrace Alife for who he is.
“We feel incredibly lucky to have a sweet wee boy who has such a special bond with his little sister,” said Heather.
Once April has come and gone, the charity will continue to offer advice and support to people with autism and their families.
Charlene hopes people’s understanding will last a bit longer too.
She added: “Sometimes the best thing to do is just ask ‘is there anything I can do to assist you?’”
“Just taking a bit of time to understand would make a huge difference.”