Autism affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they see, hear and feel the world around them. People with autism experience it in different ways, but typically face challenges in social communication and interaction.
Around 1 in 100 children and adults – approximately 2,500 people in Wolverhampton – are estimated to have an autism spectrum condition.
Last year, Wolverhampton announced its intention to become an Autism Friendly City by 2021 and, ahead of this year’s World Autism Awareness Week, which begins today (Monday 1 April) Wolverhampton's Joint Autism Strategy has been refreshed to focus on three key themes – increasing awareness and understanding of autism, improving services for people with autism, and helping people with autism to become more independent.
Emma Bennett, the City of Wolverhampton Council’s Director of Children’s Services, said: "We and our partners are committed to offering as much help and support as possible to people young and old with autism and to their families.
“We want Wolverhampton to be a place where people with autism feel safe, understood and supported, have the same opportunities as anyone else, can live the life they choose, receive personalised support when they need it, enjoy meaningful activities and, most importantly, play an active part in their community."
Wolverhampton's Joint Autism Strategy was launched in 2016 and is being implemented by a group including people with autism, parents of children with autism, representatives from the council, Wolverhampton Clinical Commissioning Group, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, the Black Country Partnership Foundation Trust, voluntary sector groups and local schools.
It has already helped bring about a number of improvements, including the development of a new diagnosis, assessment and support pathway for adults which has led to more people having assessments, reduced waiting times and improved satisfaction levels among service users. An improved pathway for children and young people will come into place next month, and work is also underway with the voluntary sector to develop a network of services to support people with autism and their families.
Work is taking place to ensure there is the capacity and resources needed within both mainstream and special schools to meet the needs of all pupils with autism. Wolverhampton’s Special School Outreach Service is training teachers from mainstream schools to become Autism Leaders, and also provides training for parents of children with autism. A new specialist centre for autism at the City of Wolverhampton College is supporting a dozen students between the ages of 16 and 25, and additional places for children with autism have been created at Tettenhall Wood School.
As well as education, people with autism are being supported into the world of work, with employment service Enable providing individual support, including help with CVs, interviews and job coaching. Other programmes such as Thrive, Black Country Impact, Wolves Workbox and Wolves at Work are supporting people with autism into employment, while a number of local businesses are committed to becoming "disability confident employers".
Meanwhile local businesses and retailers such as supermarket chain Morrisons are offering “autism hours”, turning down lighting and music for the benefit of their customers.
In the months ahead, the focus will be on increasing awareness, understanding and support, with the City of Wolverhampton Council, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust and the University of Wolverhampton all working to become autism friendly organisations, and a network of autism champions being established to promote awareness and understanding within organisations across the city.
Further work will also take place to improve service pathways and ensure more people with autism are able to access services that promote employability and independent living, and make the transition between childhood and adulthood as smooth as possible.
David Watts, Director of Adult Services, said: “We have made significant progress over the last couple of years in improving understanding of, and services for, people with autism, but there is much more we can and will do so that they are able to live their lives to the full.
"Every one of us has a role to play, and we hope to use World Autism Awareness Week to highlight some of the steps Wolverhampton is taking to become more autism friendly, and the small changes which businesses and individuals can make which will mean a big difference to people with autism."
World Autism Awareness Week runs until Sunday (7 April). On World Autism Awareness Day tomorrow (Tuesday 2 April) the council and its partners will be holding a #SmallChangesBigDifference drop-in session at the Civic Centre between 10am and 3pm for people to find out more about autism and the help and support which is available to people with autism and their families.
There will also be the opportunity for people to share the small changes that people and businesses can make which can have a big difference to people with autism.