Autism-Europe inaugurated World Autism Awareness Day early this year by hosting on 30 March a conference under the theme of the 2023 campaign ‘Building an inclusive society for autistic people’ at the European Parliament.
Hosted by Spanish MEP Rosa Estaràs, we welcomed young autistic representatives and professionals from Spain, researchers Peter Vermeulen and Vincent Grimaldi de Puget as well as a representative from Autismo España and AE Vice President Zsuzsanna Szilvásy. The speakers provided a holistic approach to the theme of inclusion, underlining the need to challenge biases and prejudices, as well as to shift paradigms to foster acceptance, a good quality of life and full participation of autistic people in society. They also highlighted the necessity to have coordinated policies and to promote accessibility across sectors, at national and EU-levels, to make it reality.
The conference kicked off with the presentations of the Spanish organisation Esment from Majorca. Two young autistic people, José Cansado Estaràs and Joan Jesús Bisbal Mora, and their teacher, Mireia Castañeda Nicolau, gave their perspective on social inclusion as well as on the access to education and employment for autistic people. Mireia Castañeda presented Esment’s 60-year experience in the field and the work they carry out for people with disabilities, which range from day centres to employment coaching and job placements in the printing, gardening and cooking sectors, among others. The importance of receiving the right support to find one’s place in the labour market – one of Esment’s main objectives – was illustrated by the personal experiences of José and Joan Jesús.
José called for more support regarding access to education and employment by noting that:
“There is still a long road ahead, but the more we learn and train, the more opportunities we will have to access a job (…) and be part of society because we are all human and part of this world.”
Joan Jesús also reminded the audience that:
“Not all disabled people have access to vocational and professional training.”
These testimonials highlighting the will of autistic people to contribute on an equal footing to society was echoed by Peter Vermeulen’s uplifting presentation, who opened the second panel of the conference. The researcher introduced the notion of ‘neuroharmony’, which represents society’s need to use and benefit from neurodiverse perspectives and talent. Vermeulen called for a shift in approach regarding autism, to focus on the capabilities and the wellbeing of each autistic person, enabling them to participate in society and live a happy and meaningful life.
Vincent Grimaldi de Puget also insisted on the value of autistic people in the workplace, highlighting the advantages and the profitability of hiring autistic employees. He underlined that unfortunately autistic candidates often have to face unconscious biases during the recruitment phase, which hinder their hiring prospects. Grimaldi de Puget presented comparative research on the proportion of autistic people – potentially being four times higher than the official 1% figure in France – and the rates of unemployment, estimated at over 80%. He also showcased innovative research evidencing the benefits and success of inclusive hiring practices (such as changing in-person interviews to written questions) to attract autistic talent.
The third and final panel – with Autismo España and Autism-Europe – outlined key policy recommendations to build an inclusive society for autistic people at national and EU-level. Speaking on behalf of the Spanish confederation, María Pindado underlined the lack of data on the autism community in Spain, explaining at the same time the high demand for services, which are unequally and insufficiently accessible across the country.
Pindado called on authorities to follow up on the innovative Spanish national strategy for autism of 2015, which, although benefitting from the new EU-funded pilot centre for autism, still needs the effective implementation of an action plan in order to deliver on the areas of diagnosis, health, education, employment, independent living, inclusion, access to the justice system and family support. On an EU-level, Autismo-España advocated for the European Disability Card to be implemented across the Union, in order for autistic people to enjoy free movement and access to services in every country.
To close the conference, Autism-Europe’s Vice President Zsuzsanna Szilvásy looked back on our forty years of advocacy for the rights of autistic people. Despite achievements in the field of autism and disability more broadly, autistic people are still not able to fully enjoy their rights in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Autistic people still face discrimination, including insufficient access to diagnosis, healthcare, education and employment, and lifelong community-based services among others.
Autism-Europe highlighted some key building blocks to achieve a truly inclusive society for and with autistic people. One of the pre-requisites is to value autistic people and foster understanding of autism in society to contribute to removing barriers, notably by providing adequate awareness raising and trainings across all sectors. Being part of society means to be empowered to make decisions and contribute, which entails upholding the legal capacity of autistic people, including their right to vote and stand for election.
Autistic people must also have access to the right support services at each stage of life to be able to live independently in the community and accessibility must be promoted in all areas. AE therefore calls for a strategic and integrated European policy approach to address the needs of autistic people across Europe, in line with the UNCRPD and international recommendations.