One of the best things about being a candidate is you get to learn about issues you didn't even realise you knew nothing about! Tonight I have been at Woodies Youth Centre observing the Medway Autism Group and Information Centre (Magic), as part of the TreeHouse "Walk in our Shoes" campaign.
Before tonight I am ashamed to say I knew hardly anything about autism - and a quick straw poll in my office before I left showed that I was not alone. But over 2 hours this evening I learned an incredible amount about the condition and left Woodies far more aware of the challenges and needs not only of the children I met and saw this evening, but also those of their parents. Magic's support centre is as much for the mums and dads as it is for the children and it was really interesting to listen to them, and hear how they learnt about autism and the roller coaster of emotions they went through as a consequence. What is very clear is that there a very few state supported services which help parents in these circumstances which yet again demonstrates the value of the third sector.
In Medway there are nearly 1000 known cases of autism out of a national total of 90,000. The importance of special education is obvious but as always the cost to local government is an issue. However what I discovered this evening is that many of the changes that authorities, Government, and even society needs to make are relatively cost-free. So for example, teacher training on how to deal with autistic children is extremely poor - in fact I was told that only half a day is dedicated to all disabilities. It is quite clear from speaking to parents that this is not anywhere near enough. Spending time at centres like Magic would help increase the knowledge base of even the most experienced teacher.
Another aspect is awareness. As I said at the outset I was ashamed with how little I knew about autism - but tonight I found I wanted to learn so much. Others will remain totally ignorant about a condition that affects the communication, social understanding and behaviour of 1 in every 100 school aged children. If you knew what you were looking for, you would recognise autistic behaviour in supermarkets, playgrounds, shopping centres etc every day of the week but instead you, like me, probably think what you see is a child being naughty or disruptive, cast some sort of aspersion about the parent's lack of control before moving on. Increased awareness can happen through programmes like Walk in our Shoes but longer term awareness is also about inclusion. I have often thought that inclusion should happen at a very early age. Rhys, my eldest nephew, was at a nursery school in Hythe with a child who had Downs Syndrome. As a consequence of his everyday attendance and inclusion at nursery, Rhys, now ten, has absolutely no issue with disabled people. Unlike many children his age, if he sees someone with Downs Syndrome or another obvious external disability, he doesn't stare and ask awkward questions. Why not? Because he doesn't see anything "different" - as far as he is concerned, or certainly when it comes to Downs Syndrome, he understands that sometimes things happen but it is not something that is necessarily frightening or harmful so why should he be afraid or treat them in any other way. If children are introduced to autism at an early age then why would they be frightened of it? Why would their only view of autism be like mine, and those of the parents I spoke to tonight before their children were diagnosed - that autism means aggressive behaviour and rocking back and forth? Well it wouldn't - because children at a young age become conditioned and if something is considered "normal" by those around them, then it becomes normal to them too. But this is in the long term and in the meantime one of the volunteers was talking about the need for reverse inclusion - i.e children from mainstream education going to special education centres and doing things like mentoring, buddying, or simply playing or learning. And funnily enough what I saw tonight at the Youth Club was 30 odd children running around playing games in the same way that if I went tomorrow to the Youth Club I would see 30 odd children running around playing games. So I went through my own reverse inclusion process tonight - I don't really know what I expected this evening, only what I saw and heard wasn't it - it was much better.
Much of what could be done to transform the lives of children with autism is cost free but the benefit it would bring in the long term would be invaluable. I learned a lot about autism tonight, and yet I believe I only scratched at the surface and I am looking forward to learning a great deal more in the future.