Monday, 11 July 2016

My speech from the Westminster Autism Commission launch!

On Monday 4th July the Westminster Autism Commission launched its first inquiry report 'A Spectrum of Obstacles' and I was privileged to be asked to speak as an autistic self-advocate.

Below is the speech I had written to give - on the day I think a few words may have gotten changed or swapped around as is the way with public speaking! I hope to be able to get a video of the speech posted online soon :)


Good afternoon; It’s lovely to see so many people here today to listen to what our Commission has to say – for a very long time now we as a community have felt ignored or pushed aside so to see people from outside the Autism world here wanting to affect positive change is truly heart-warming.

I stand before you today not as a representative of the Autism community, but as an individual, as someone who has struggled both pre and post diagnosis.

You may look at me and not see someone who needs help; you may only see the mask I wear, the person I want you to see. I stand here as a confident independent woman, someone who lives alone, works full-time and splits my free time between the commitments of being a Tizard Centre postgraduate, a speaker for the NAS and Research Autism and whenever possible following my beloved Saracens round the country making friends with both fellow and opposition fans wherever I go!

What you see on the surface however is not the whole story, while some of you may be able to see the stress I carry or the tiredness in my eyes, most people would dismiss it as work related or assume I had a young child at home! And while a not small amount of my stress is from work, there is a lot that is due to the way my autism affects my life.

Some of you may be able to see the strain I’m under trying to control my anxiety, you may be able to tell the level of pain I’m experiencing from my sensory sensitivities, or recognise the amount of effort I’m putting in to maintaining this ‘normal’ image.

But can you know what this will cost me later? The hard recovery process I will have to go through just to be able to function at work tomorrow?

The term ‘Autism Fatigue’ is relatively new but very apt. There are times I simply cannot explain what is wrong with me as I am so overwhelmed, so drained of energy from just keeping going that formulating thoughts into speech becomes near impossible. As a result I can come out of a doctor’s appointment that was for an earache with a prescription for antidepressants – again.

Of course, that outcome is subject to me actually making it into the consultant room in the first place – there have been a number of occasions in the past where I have simply walked out abandoning appointments or tests because the waiting room has become too much and my sensory sensitivities have been driven into overload by the potent mix of chemical cleaning smells, screaming children, airless rooms and over busy walls. When you’re not feeling well and already anxious about talking to someone do you really need to be overwhelmed with images of the many ways you could die?!

I like to think that I’m a fairly effective communicator, able to get my point across and be understood, so when I’m finding it hard to get what I need out of my GPs surgery it’s really not a surprise to me to learn of some of the horror stories that the commission heard. Some of the experiences sent in as evidence were terrifying – one woman told us of her 40 year old autistic daughter who was taken to hospital with a suspected dislocated hip only to discover that it was in fact a 2 kilogram cancerous tumour! Another parent told us of their autistic son only being diagnosed as having acute renal failure after having an NHS health check – for which he is only eligible for because he has learning difficulties.

But not everyone with Autism has learning difficulties.

A regular health check for autistic people would go a long way towards helping the current situation and catching these medical issues before they become life-threatening and more costly to the NHS as well as taking some of the pressure off of carers, parents and the autistic people themselves.
I know I would definitely appreciate an annual health check if only to put any niggling fears at ease and enable me to regularly stay in touch with my GP surgery. I do know from personal experience with my university mentor however that the onus needs to be on the professional involved – I needed my mentor to regularly contact me to see how I was doing, if it was left for me to contact her when I needed I would bury my head in the sand and not know how to deal with the problem, often leaving issues far too long to ask for help with.

And that ultimately is the crux of this issue, why this report was needed. I can’t speak for all autistic people but I can say that the majority of us struggle to ask for help when we need it and struggle even more to cope when we don’t get it.

We’re not asking for the world to change overnight, for every person in every healthcare establishment to suddenly become an expert in autism, we’re asking for the people who hold the purse strings to recognise that we , the autistic community, are a large (larger than you may think!) group of patients (and voters!) who need more support than is currently being provided.

We need to feel safe going into surgeries and hospitals; we need to know we’re not going to be belittled by receptionist who doesn’t understand our difficulties; that we’re not going to be dismissed by GPs who aren’t able to hear what we’re trying to communicate. We need to feel confident that we’re not going to get trapped on the mental health roundabout being passed pillar to post; only receiving crisis support when we have a complete breakdown.

We’re not asking for UNreasonable adjustments or a complete restructure of the NHS. To paraphrase a favourite film quote of mine "we’re just a community of people, standing in front of our representatives, asking them to help us"

Please, it’s taken so much effort from us just to get to this point, to finally be able to express what we need and ask for the help to get it. Please don’t let us down.

Thank you.

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