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‘Autism isn’t something that we can just park’ - How AsIAm is helping the autistic community at this time


Covid-19 had had a huge impact on all our lives. Our routines, habits and daily work schedules have been turned upside down. While dealing with this change can be daunting, for autistic people, it is often stressful and unnerving.

Covid-19 has presented huge challenges to our community because predictability and structure are so important,” explains Adam Harris, CEO of AsIAm, the county’s national autism charity. “We’ve seen the complete destruction of that in recent weeks. Our community needs a lot of support now but they will also need a lot of support to re-establish normal routines in time.”

AsIAm was founded six years ago with the aim to create an autism-friendly Ireland– a society where every autistic person has the opportunity to fully participate and is accepted “as they are”. They currently have a staff team of 13, half of whom are autistic. Through both community support and training and accreditation, they work to address autism as an accessibility issue.

“When you think about accessibility, you might usually think about wheelchair ramps etc. but actually there are things in the world that create real barriers for autistic people,” Adam explains.  “Things like how we communicate, how the sensory environment works and the attitudes of other people. We work to address those accessibility barriers so that it is easier for autistic people to participate.

“We’ve a big range of programmes that stretches from working with food markets like SuperValu through to working with universities like DCU and schools across the country to help them to become autism-friendly.”

Living with autism during a pandemic

As you can imagine, the charity is seeing a huge increase in the amount of people that need their help at this time.

“Sensory environments can be very challenging for autistic people,” Adam explains. “In lockdown, we may have a family of four or five people on top of each other in a small house all day. Eating together, working together, cooking together, that poses difficulties.

“Autism is on a broad spectrum and there are some people who might not be able to understand what’s going on at present. They might struggle to grasp new concepts like ‘lockdown’ or ‘Covid-19 testing’ and ‘social distancing.’”

As weeks go by, Adam fears the community will be impacted to a greater degree.

“There is a real sense in the autism community that the longer this goes on the more challenging it can become,” he states. “We’re seeing a lot of people’s support networks badly affected. There’s a lot of fear in the community. Autistic people can be anxious about things at the best of times. At the moment, we’re seeing that grow.”

A simple gesture can go a long way

To help counteract this, AsIAm is encouraging the public to be kind and considerate at all times but especially during this pandemic.

“During a crisis like this autism isn’t something that we can just park,” Adam explains. “All of these challenges will still be here when life returns to normal but they are actually being exasperated right now as well.

“Even if we just think about judgement, autism is an invisible condition. We have a scenario where people in the community might need to do things in a very different way than other people but they won’t necessarily look any different. That can lead to judgement and difficulties at the best of times but I think at the moment everybody is a little bit on edge.

“For example, there are people in our community who would have no concept of personal space at the best of times,” states Adam. “Now with social distancing, we’re all so mindful of that. At this time, more than ever, we need to be as kind and accepting as we can be towards everybody.”

Simply thinking before you speak or taking an extra moment to be mindful can make a huge difference.

“We know of autistic people who are doctors and autistic people who are working in supermarkets,” explains Adam. “They are obviously under immense stress at this time. Kindness and acceptance and a little bit of thinking before we act is more important than ever.”

Raising vital funds

While the charity works tirelessly to help autistic people navigate through this pandemic, they have also had to cancel a variety of different fundraisers.

“We’re busier than ever but we have been badly hit,” states Adam. “We only receive 10pc of our budget every year from the state, the rest we have to raise. We have to raise in and around €900,000 in the year. Autism Month is an essential part of that. As well as that we have a lot of summer fundraising activities in May and June. All of that has had to be cancelled.

“Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we are down up to maybe €300,000 as a result of Covid-19 which is a third of our budget. That’s significant. It runs a risk of having a major impact on our ability to support people in the future.”

However, with the help of public support the charity can continue its important work.

“We are asking the public to help us if they can,” states Adam. “We know it is a really difficult time for people. More than ever, autistic people need help right now and more than ever, AsIAm needs the public’s support to provide that help. There’s a couple of ways that people can support us. You can text ASIAM to 50300 to donate €4 or you can go to the AsIAm website and donate there. Every contribution will help us and enable us to continue the important work that we’re doing.”

The charity is also encouraging people to take part in their fun and inventive social media challenge #FlyforAutism. The challenge is simple, make a paper airplane and see how far you can fly it.

“We then want people nominate their friends, donate online and post their video on social media,” explains Adam. “It’s just a way to keep the conversation about autism going.”

So, what are you waiting for? Get involved in the #FlyforAutism challenge or text ASIAM to 50300 to donate €4.