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Autism Tasmania

Mrs Armitage (Launceston) - Mr President, today I speak about autism and the work of Autism Tasmania in Launceston. Autism is neurological condition which is sometimes described as a different way of thinking. The autism spectrum is very broad. Some people are only very mildly affected while others can be severely autistic. No two people with autism will have the same challenges or abilities.

While the jury is still out on what causes autism and why we are seeing so many more cases of it, especially in boys, we know some things for sure. Those people within the spectrum process information differently from people referred to as neurotypical. This can result in feelings of confusion and anxiety.

Many people with autism understand language very literally. Autism Tasmania's Robyn Thomas said, 'One mother mentioned she told her 14-year-old son to hop in the shower, only to check on him later to find he was literally hopping while in the shower'.

It was once thought people with autism did not have empathy. This is not true. Another mother says that her eight-year-old autistic son does have empathy and tries to do the right thing, but she likens autism to not being able to read signs. Robyn says the mother told her, 'A sign might say "Don't walk on the grass", but if you do not understand the language the sign is written in, you will walk on the grass'.

People with autism can often have restricted and repetitive behaviours. They can find socialising difficult; they can lack flexibility in their thinking; they are often unable to read facial expressions and so miss important social clues. They can be very sensitive to noises and some food textures and flavours and other experiences.

Autism also gives them incredible strengths. The attention to detail many of them possess means they have outstanding knowledge of topics they are interested in. I am hoping today that this speech will shine a light on the strength of people on the autism spectrum and the wonderful support they receive from Autism Tasmania.

Autism Tasmania has over 1000 members. These are people on the autism spectrum, their parents, immediate family and partners. Over one-quarter of those people live in Launceston. It is expected there are many with undiagnosed autism in the community because many people do not disclose that they live with it. Many of those people will seek information over the phone from Autism Tasmania without disclosing their diagnosis.

Autism Tasmania offers information, advice and referrals to therapy and community services. Peer support groups, including one which meets every two months in Launceston, share knowledge and experiences of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Family get-togethers and an adult Asperger's group meet in Launceston once a month.

The organisation's autism information team for northern Tasmania comprises Launceston-based training manager Robyn Thomas, and autism advisers Maree Morgan in the north and Demi Mitchell in the north-west. Robyn says they aim to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism. An example is encouraging employers and community leaders to provide more sanctuary safe places, quiet places where people with autism can seek sanctuary from busy, noisy and stressful environments.

Several weeks ago, 205 people attended a day-long autism conference at the Door of Hope in Launceston. International Asperger syndrome expert Tony Attwood and fellow clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Garnett spoke about how to help young people on the autism spectrum manage their emotions. Our office asked Professor Atwood for his thoughts on how neurotypical people can make Tasmania a better place for people on the autism spectrum. He kindly wrote back with the following advice -

I think there would be major advantages in schools being more aware of the characteristics of autism, but especially other children who could not only help with social inclusion and the development of social skills, but also prevent bullying and teasing and raise self-esteem.

A theme could be how to support a fellow student with autism in your class, but this could also extend into how to support someone with an autism spectrum disorder at work or in your community.

The emphasis would be on explaining that autism is a different way of perceiving, thinking and learning and relating which can lead to particular talents of value to the community.

I also think that education in autism would be valuable for health professionals, especially in the mental health services, due to the high level of anxiety and mood disorders in those who have autism.

People on the autism spectrum have the same needs as anyone else - to be valued and accepted. The world's most famous autistic person, Dr Temple Grandin says -

Autism is about being different, not less. If we open our minds and change our attitudes and become more supportive, people with autism can teach us much about life.

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