In Wales, there are roughly 31,000 people living with an autism spectrum condition. That means that roughly 1 in 100 Welsh people are autistic – myself included, after I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 12.
For those of you not familiar with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is a neurological condition that affects social interaction and development, often characterised with sensory issues and repetitive behaviours. But it affects individuals in widely different ways.
We cannot ignore the contribution that Autistic people have made to Wales. Famous Welsh people on the spectrum include Anthony Hopkins (above) who has Asperger’s, and whose Hollywood roles have helped bring Wales to international recognition.
Perhaps Greta Thunberg is the most high-profile example of a person with autism today. Although not Welsh, she has struck a chord with many in the country with her environmental efforts, and has sparked climate change protests across the world.
Unfortunately, our society in Wales continues to present real barriers to people with autism. A recent study by TUC Cymru has shown that only 16% of adults on the spectrum in Wales were in full-time employment, despite 77% of those wishing they had full-time employment.
Also, according to the National Autistic Society, at least one in three autistic adults are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support. The suicide rates for those on the autism spectrum is also 10x higher than the general population.
The Welsh Labour Party, who have attempted to portray themselves as ‘’Standing up for Wales’’ and an ally of the marginalised and disenfranchised turned their backs on the Autistic community last year by voting against a proposed Autism Bill that would have provided strategy and the foundations to build new innovative autism services in the country.
Unfortunately, coupled with public misconceptions about autistic people such as the stereotype that they are mentally impaired and incapable of basic rational thinking, we now live in a climate in which autistic and others with learning and social-based disorders are one of the most marginalised groups in the country.
The Welsh independence movement is at its core about improving the lives of the people of Wales, and therefore making it a better nation for minority and marginalised groups should be a key part of the movement.
The movement has already seen some debate about what kind of place an independent Wales would be for minority groups such as BAME and LGBT+. But sadly, the topic of the Autistic community and what kind of place Wales will be for them in the future has not, so far, became part of this national debate, whether it be in the marches of Cardiff and Caernarfon or the threads of Twitter and Facebook. That is what has inspired me to write this article.
Autistic people have a huge amount to offer the new Wales we are building and the discussion around Welsh independence gives us an opportunity to get them on board and create a new society than recognises their contributions as individuals and citizens rather than treating them as an impaired people who lack any place or representation.
Smaller countries such as the Scandinavian nations and the Netherlands, have helped pave the way for accommodation and acceptance of Autistic individuals due to their national emphasis on high-quality healthcare, funding of education and additional need services. This shows us that size and population is no obstacle for both independence and equitable treatment of a nation’s people.
We have already taken steps towards this goal after Leanne Wood raised the issue of Neurodiversity at the Plaid Cymru 2019 winter conference. The conference recognised the traits and abilities of autistic and other non-neurotypical people as a form of diversity that requires social inclusion and acceptance rather than the condition being a medical condition or ‘defect’.
This was heartening to witness at first hand and can help give us foundations on how to better raise awareness surrounding the issues of the Autistic community and make it an equal part of the national debate as we have with BAME, LGBT+ and other communities.
If we are to make an independent Wales work for us all, then the discussion needs to be had. We can show the Autistic community that a better alternative to the exclusion of Westminster is possible in independence, but we need to make sure our voices are head and that we all have an integral, equal part in this debate.