A community initiative introduced by parents of neurodiverse children in Sandymount encouraged its audience to view neurodiversity as a difference rather than a deficit on its official launch night.
The panel meeting took place at Lansdowne Football Club and included speakers such as Harris, child psychologist Dr Davida Hartman and deputy principal Liana Cassin, who introduced a specialised autism class in Grace Park National School in recent years.
Neurodiversity Sandymount advocates on behalf of local children and families with unique needs, including those who are autistic. The group hopes to see small changes they have made in terms of accessibility, such as the use of service dogs and exemptions from queuing, be introduced in other local communities. The group has the backing of national autism charity AsIAm, which was founded by Adam Harris in 2014.
Harris believes that more action is needed throughout Autism Awareness Month to address the ongoing discrimination that autistic and other neurodiverse people face on a daily basis.
“There are invisible barriers that prevent people from being included. We are contacted by people on a weekly basis, saying that they weren’t accepted in a restaurant or that their child wasn’t allowed join the GAA team. Discrimination exists and we need to talk about it more,” Harris says.
Neurodiversity itself is an umbrella term used to describe individuals not considered neurotypical. Individuals who have dyslexia, dyspraxia or an acquired brain injury can also be referred to as neurodiverse. The autistic community in particular, however, are associated with the conception of the neurodiversity movement.
The Sandymount initiative’s official logo is an infinity loop, which represents the neurodiverse community and the endless potential they can enrich society with.
The group has made a commitment to educating businesses and public services about neurodiversity to benefit the wider community. Businesses that agree to partner with the group can display the logo to show that they have undergone training to accommodate the needs of neurodiverse people.
Additionally, individuals themselves can apply for a neurodiversity pack, which allows them to wear the group’s logo on a lanyard. Business owners or workers can then be made aware that a person on their premises may have additional needs and adapt a more sensitive approach to the customer. This may mean seating a neurodiverse person in a quieter part of a restaurant or allowing a service dog on the premises.
The meeting also coincides with the launch of a new report by AsIAm, which sought to highlight both the barriers facing autistic people in Irish society and public understanding of the condition. 6 out of 10 of those surveyed said that they held a negative view towards autism, while 40 per cent believed that autistic children should attend different schools to their neurotypical peers.
Harris, who has a diagnosis of autism himself, spoke candidly about how many places were inaccessible to him and his family growing up. He found noisy public settings distressing and his parents often decided not to go to certain places on the grounds that his behaviour would be mocked or dismissed by others. This has led him to realise that the onus is not on autistic people to change their behaviour, but for society to become more compassionate towards the neurodiverse minority.
“When society decides not to be inclusive, we’re missing out on a vibrant, brilliant community of people who see the world in a different way. We know that we need different perspectives in order to succeed. We could all benefit from a more calmer, structured and understanding world,” Harris says.
Neurodiversity Sandymount’s website is available to view at https://www.neurodiversityireland.com/ for further information and support.
It is this belief that motivated deputy principal Liana Cassin to set up a class solely for autistic students in Grace Park’s Educate Together National School in Drumcondra. She says that besides benefiting the pupils within the class itself, it has helped educate other students and their families across the wider school community about embracing difference. The class was conceptualised over lockdown and initially began through Zoom before the return to in person learning.
Three students are selected per day to visit the autism class and learn indirectly about how to adapt their behaviour in a slightly different environment. Small, meaningful acts such as these helps form a generation of mini advocates, according to Cassin. She hopes that other schools will consider introducing similar structures for their neurodiverse students going forward.
The efforts of Neurodiversity Sandymount are similar to an project orchestrated back in 2018, which saw local organisations and businesses in Clonakilty undertake training to make it the first autism friendly town in Ireland. This project also received support from AsIAm and led to many changes, including the introduction of quiet shopping sessions in some of the affiliated businesses. Harris says that this had a positive effect not only for neurodiverse customers, but also helped individuals with dementia and hearing loss have a more enjoyable experience while shopping.
Neurodiversity Sandymount has already submitted a proposal to Dublin City Council in an effort to ensure that infrastructures across the city, such as playgrounds and libraries, are mindful of the needs of neurodiverse children. They have already received support from local businesses to date. The local Tesco in the area provides a parking space for neurodiverse families to make their shopping experience as straightforward as possible.
Dr Davida Hartman, who runs the Children’s Clinic in Sandycove, also argued that autistic and other neurodiverse people have rights under the Equality Act 2004 that support the introduction of supports. Some autistic people have anxiety surrounding conversing over the phone and she believes GPs in particular should be mindful of this, as it is impacting on autistic patients. She argues that the use of email or text messaging to ensure patients don’t miss out on check-ups should be given consideration.
She also stressed that autistic and neurodiverse children need to be allowed to live as their authentic selves for their own development and wellbeing.
“It’s the people around an autistic child that need to change. The most important thing is that people are kind and flexible. It comes down to people accepting children for who they are and accepting all the good that comes after that,” Hartman says.
Róisín Butler and Claire Young