I have written previously on this website about autism awareness and about tackling the autism employment gap. Making Bristol an autism-friendly city has been one of my priorities since I was first elected in 2015, and one my whole team is committed to.
Constituents tell me that many autistic people in Bristol, and their families, encounter barriers in accessing public services, receiving support in education and in finding employment. So recently I held a constituency surgery specifically for autistic residents.
The appointments allowed people to raise specific issues and gave me a better understanding of what’s important to autistic constituents, and how to set about resolving any problems. I want to help create the changes that could transform the lives of those on the autism spectrum, and I hope other MPs and politicians will hold similar events.
Thanks to Henry Barnes from National Autistic Society (NAS) for organisation and Ian Ensum from Bristol Autism Support Service (BASS) for hosting. BASS and NAS have both helped train me and my team on autism awareness and keep us well informed.
I was really pleased to see coverage of the surgery in the i newspaper. Here’s the full text of the story, as it appeared on 19 September:
Thangam Debbonaire holds ‘UK’s first MP surgery’ for people on the autism spectrum
by Serina Sandhu
A Bristol MP has held what is thought to be the UK’s first constituency surgery specifically for people on the autism spectrum and for parents of children with autism. Thangham Debbonaire, the Labour MP for Bristol West, met with her constituents to find out their specific needs and the barriers they face in accessing services and receiving support, in the hope of making the city more autism-friendly. Many people brought up issues that Ms Debbonaire usually hears during her surgery. “But it was all through the prism of what it’s like for me as a person on the autism spectrum,” she tells i.
Changing employment practices
“People on the autism spectrum have very high rates of unemployment. The graduate unemployment rate is much higher than the rate for other disabled people. There [are] all sorts of things an MP can do to try and change that.
“I changed my own employment practices. I altered the job descriptions to be more accessible for someone on the autism spectrum. There is someone in my office who is and it works extremely well.”
Ms Debbonaire says she believes that many adults with autism are being excluded from mainstream services due to a lack of understanding and awareness.
“If you meet somebody who may be having difficulty maintaining eye contact with you, your first response, if you’re not autism aware, might be: ‘This person is really shifty, I don’t trust them.’ When you become autism-aware, my first response is: ‘It’s possible this person is on the autism spectrum. I just need to lower my expectations about them maintaining eye contact.’”
Since the constituency surgery, which took place on Friday 15 September, Ms Debbonaire says she has already spoken to businesses about being more autism-aware and that she will be dealing with individual problems that her constituents raised.
Her surgery has also encouraged her fellow Bristol MPs to hold similar meetings and Ms Debbonaire hopes MPs across the country will follow suit after they realise that people with autism may be unintentionally excluded from their surgeries.
Making Bristol an autism-friendly city
Her long-term vision is to make Bristol a thoroughly autism-friendly city.
“That’s my goal. It’s very personal but it’s one as a team we believe in really, really strongly.”
It may even benefit neurotypical people (who are not on the autistic spectrum), adds Ms Debbonaire. “For instance I’m not on the autism spectrum but when I watched a video of a little child having difficulties in the shopping centre – very busy, lots of bright lights, lots of noise, lots of confusing information, sensory overload – I was thinking: ‘Yeah, I’ve had that feeling.’ I think quite a lot of people have that feeling in shopping centres.
“If we could convince city planners, from people who plan cities to people who plan their own small shop, dance class or museum to think about how to make sure that people don’t get sensory overload, it not only becomes more accessible to adult with autism, it becomes more accessible to a child with autism. But also the spin-off benefits are that the rest of us don’t have sensory overload either.”
You can read the story online here in the i newspaper.
There was also good coverage on Bristol 24/7 .