Mark McDonald, MSP for Aberdeen Donside, addresses the Scottish Parliament on 16 March. Watch the video below and click "read more" to view the text of the speech.
- Mark McDonald (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP): I thank members across the chamber who supported the motion and made it eligible for members’ business. I also thank those members who have stayed behind. We have had a very long day in the chamber, and their sacrifice in sticking around is noted and appreciated.
I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the National Autistic Society Scotland.
It has become an annual tradition for us to mark world autism awareness week with a debate in the Parliament, often on world autism awareness day itself. That is not possible this year: world autism awareness day is 2 April and world autism awareness week is from 2 to 8 April, but Parliament dissolves next week. I am advised that this year the National Autistic Society will launch its biggest ever public awareness campaign, and I am told that more details will follow about that.
I note that on Tuesday 22 March the BBC will screen a new drama series, “The A word”, featuring Christopher Eccleston. It will portray a family coming to terms with their son’s autism. I will watch it with keen interest. I am also aware that many will tune in who do not have a direct link to autism or an understanding or awareness of the condition.
That brings me to the substance of today’s debate. Schools autism awareness week began on Monday 14 March and ends on Friday. It is the first ever schools autism awareness week that the National Autistic Society has run. The NAS has established an array of online materials to support schools that wish to participate in the week’s activities.
I was delighted to learn that my daughter’s school—Dyce primary, which happens to be my former primary school—is taking part and will be increasing awareness and understanding of autism within the school throughout the week.
Why is the week important? The 2012 National Autistic Society report “Count us in” was launched in the Parliament by the actor Richard Wilson, who is the patron of the National Autistic Society in Scotland. That survey tells us 78 per cent of young people with autism thought that people outside their family did not know enough about autism and 65 per cent said that they had faced bullying at school. In addition, 33 per cent of adults said that they had experienced workplace bullying or harassment. The 2007 National Autistic Society report “Think differently about autism” tells us that 92 per cent of people said that they had heard of autism but fewer had heard of Asperger’s syndrome and 90 per cent did not know how prevalent autism is. That all stems from a lack of awareness and understanding, and, in some cases, a lack of empathy.
I watched a video last week that was put together by a group of young volunteers with the National Autistic Society. One girl spoke of the misconception that people with autism lack empathy. In fact, it is often the case that people with autism are themselves subject to a lack of empathy from both individuals and institutions. Taking awareness raising into schools is important as a means of addressing that, giving young people a greater appreciation of the difficulties that people with autism can face as a result of any or all of sensory issues, developmental delay and inability to respond to or recognise social cues.
Bringing into the school environment and giving young people a greater appreciation of autism will help to eliminate some of the barriers that can exist, and will increase awareness and understanding. That will support greater empathy for those with autism. Given that one in 100 individuals is autistic, it is highly likely that a large proportion of children will know a child or children in their school or community with the condition.
There is good work out there already. The autism toolbox, a resource for schools that was launched in partnership by the Scottish Government and Scottish Autism with support from the Autism Network Scotland, helps to support teachers who have autistic children in their classes, sharing practical examples and offering support and signposting.
NAS Scotland delivers an education rights service, which provides impartial and confidential information for parents and carers of pre-school and school-age children. The service celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. NAS has also developed the my world service, which aims to provide education professionals with the tools to ensure that every autistic child is given the best chance.
In my research before the debate, I learned of the work done at Hillpark secondary school in Glasgow. Through the Hillpark autism unit buddy network, secondary 5 and 6 pupils volunteer to become buddies to pupils on the autistic spectrum. Potential buddies learn about the nature of the spectrum of human behaviour and relate that to themselves in areas such as shyness, organisational ability and sociability. The aim is to get young people to recognise that people with autism are not separate from them, do not have the stereotypical list of behaviours and are diverse in personality.
Feedback on the buddy network included these comments from an autistic pupil:
“The buddies helped me well with social skills. Classes were better when they were there because it was much more fun and they understood the kind of difficulties I had when I came to secondary school. The buddies can explain how the school works and how to get on with people. I would like to be a buddy when I am older because I like helping people and the buddies certainly helped me. It is good to have older friends in the school because it helped me to feel more part of the school when I first came here.”
I hope that schools autism awareness week helps to build on that work and, as it becomes more of a fixture, begins to address the statistics that I cited earlier.
Last week, a group of MSPs met with interested organisations and individuals to discuss how we can make Scotland a more autism-friendly nation. The meeting was designed to serve as a springboard for the establishment of a future cross-party group in the next session of Parliament. I do not know what the election holds in prospect, but I have said that, if I am returned to the Parliament, I would be happy to help in establishing a cross-party group. I know that other members on all sides of the chamber have similarly indicated their support.
Finally, I return to “The A Word”, and a scene that has been highlighted in advance of screening, in which the young boy at the centre of the drama experiences a meltdown at a birthday party. I know families whose child has been the only one in their class not to be invited to a birthday party because of their autism and a lack of understanding, and I know how that makes parents and children feel as a consequence. My hope is that, by raising awareness in schools and helping young people to become more aware, understanding and empathetic, we can consign such experiences to fiction.