Seeing beyond labels: Advocating for autism awareness

As a Speech Language Pathologist deeply engaged in local and European voluntary organisations for professionals, and as a proud Maltese PN MEP candidate, I am happy to share some thoughts with you here today during World Autism Awareness Month. This month serves as a poignant reminder of our collective responsibility to support and empower individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families.

One of the most pressing issues surrounding autism is the crucial need for early diagnosis. Early intervention is paramount in unlocking the full potential of individuals with autism, yet far too often, diagnosis occurs later than optimal. We must work tirelessly to streamline diagnostic processes and ensure that every child has access to early assessment and intervention services.

Access to services is another fundamental aspect of autism advocacy. Unfortunately, disparities persist in the availability and affordability of support services. We must strive for equitable access to therapies, education, and support networks for all individuals with autism, regardless of their socio-economic background or geographic location. For instance, individuals with autism in Gozo have the right to access services as much as individuals in Malta.

Support for families is equally indispensable. Raising a child with autism can be immensely challenging, and families deserve comprehensive support systems. From guidance on accessing intervention and education systems to access to respite care, we must stand in solidarity with families affected by autism and provide them with the resources they need to thrive.

It’s crucial to recognise that autism often comes with hidden disabilities that may not be immediately apparent. As a society, we must foster understanding and acceptance of these hidden challenges, promoting inclusivity and accommodation in all aspects of life.

In the realm of education, schools play a pivotal role in supporting students with autism. We must invest in teacher training programs to equip educators with the tools and strategies needed to create inclusive learning environments where every child can succeed.

Addressing waiting lists for services and therapies is another area where improvement is urgently needed. Prolonged waiting times only exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals with autism and their families. We must work to streamline referral processes and increase the capacity of support services to meet the growing demand. We are all aware of the waiting times to access Psychology and Occupational therapy services at the Child Development Assessment Unit (CDAU) in Malta, and the waiting times to access services at the Child and Young People’s Services (CYPS) and we are also aware that there is as yet no CDAU type unit set up in Gozo.

Support for individuals with autism must extend beyond childhood and adolescence. We must ensure that adequate support services are available throughout life, empowering these individuals to lead fulfilling and independent lives, and providing parents and carers with peace of mind when they think of the future.

We must embrace the philosophy of “seeing the able, not the label.” Instead of focusing solely on deficits, we must recognise and celebrate the unique strengths and abilities of individuals with autism. By fostering a culture of acceptance and inclusion, we can create a more compassionate and supportive society for all.

As communities, let us come together in recognition of people with autism and those who love and support them. Let us pledge to do better, to advocate tirelessly for their rights and needs, and to create a world where every individual, regardless of neurodiversity, can thrive. Together, we can make a difference.

Norma Camilleri is a PN MEP candidate for the 2024 Elections for the European Parliament.

This opinion was first published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 14 April 2024

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