Podcast: The Detail

Understanding autism

Countdown's introduction of a 'quiet hour' to help autistic shoppers is part of a growing understanding of the issue

Be it through big names opening up about their own autism, or supermarkets dimming the lights to be more accommodating, society’s understanding of what it means to sit on the spectrum is growing.

“There’s a pretty famous saying and I always start with this: you’ve met one person with autism, and you’ve met one person with autism,” says Autism NZ chief executive officer Dane Dougan.

“Essentially it’s just a different way of seeing the world and the brain is just wired slightly differently.”

The general traits shown by those on the spectrum, he says, include sensory sensitivity - particularly to light, noise and people.

On the “lower needs” end there can be difficulty understanding body language and social cues, and on the other side of the spectrum, some require 24/7 care.

Dougan says most people have heard of autism, but not many understand it.

“It’s not about trying to stop autism - we embrace it and we celebrate it. For us, it’s about trying to ensure our community lives the best life they can possibly live.”

Autistic people, and the parents of dependent autistic children, welcomed the arrival last week of ‘quiet hours’ at Countdown supermarkets.

During the quiet hours, lights, music and unnecessary noise are toned town to make the space more accommodating to people whose senses can be overwhelmed in a typical supermarket environment.

“The other day when we went to the quiet hour, it was just amazing how chilled he was,” says Megan Stokes, who works for Autism NZ and has a 20-year-old son with autism.

She says initiatives like quiet hours mean families with autistic members can participate in society as any other family can.

“Being able to do the things that other families take for granted,” she says.

She looks forward to the day when things like quiet hours are as normal as wheelchair ramps.

“And it’s just a normal thing, so someone can ring up and say, ‘Oh, when is your quiet hour?'”

Dougan says having famous faces speaking openly about their autism - notably, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who describes Aspergers as her 'superpower' – is good overall.

“It’s beneficial; if you put it in context.

“With someone like Greta, it’s amazing she’s doing what she’s doing, and she said it herself: her autism allows her to focus on an area she wants to focus on.

“Hopefully people realise that Greta is one person ... [but] you still need to put that in context around those who will need 24/7 care for the rest of their lives.

“It’s helpful because it starts a conversation - and then we can start having these conversations around the fact that we want to celebrate what she’s doing, but let’s not forget there are a lot of people out there who need support and possibly aren’t getting it.”

Dougan says a lot is being done to help people on the autism spectrum to participate in society, and the organisation’s working with other businesses to make them more accessible to those on the spectrum.

Autism NZ also hopes to open a one-stop shop for autism in Petone next year, where people can be diagnosed and receive the help they need.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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