Norman Lamb, Minister of State for Care and Support, launched a national network of Autism Champions before an invited audience at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace on Tuesday 10th March. Just over three weeks before World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April. Attendees included Jane Asher, Matthew Flett of Goldman Sachs, Dame Stephanie Shirley and Sir Peter Vardy. The Champions Network forms a key strand in a national Autism Awareness campaign,“ Connect to Autism”, co-ordinated by the Autism Alliance UK and funded by the Department of Health. The five interconnecting strands are:
• A network of high-profile Autism Champions, willing to use their own ideas, experience and networks to advance the project.
• A network of national chains from the retail, financial and other sectors committed to making some of their venues autism-friendly in a pilot phase. With a view to adding more venues in a roll-out phase from July.
• Networks of local champions, committed to making their communities autism-friendly.
• The UK’s first online autism community: “Autism Connect” (http://www.autism-connect.org.uk/), successfully piloted in the West Midlands with Department for Education funding and rolled out nationally on 12th March with Department of Health funding. “Autism Connect” allows people with autism to share experiences and to rate venues and services through “Tripadvisor”-style software.
• A simple autism charter, designed by people with autism, which sets out clear aims for autism-friendly venues. Venues which sign up to the charter have a window sticker inviting people to rate them on “Autism Connect”.
Addressing the meeting, Norman Lamb described the purpose of this awareness project as “enabling people to be fully part of their communities, and allowing people with autism to be equal citizens”. The project provides “a fantastic opportunity to make changes to people’s lives: the prize is giving people a good life”.
Autism Alliance Chair, John Phillipson, said the project was about restoring their communities to people with autism – too many people with autism face incomprehension, misunderstanding and even hostility. John Phillipson emphasised the value of training front line staff – in shops, cafes, jobcentres, police stations and much more: “these front line staff are often the gatekeepers to services, and a small amount of knowledge can make a huge difference to people with autism”.