Campaigners and charities have successfully united to mark World Autism Awareness Day in the UK.
In the lead-up to the day (2 April), 20 autism charities called on people across the UK to raise awareness of the condition and “stand up for autism”.
They also called for an end to discrimination against people with autism, adequate funds to improve understanding of autism, and better services and staff training.
More than 15,000 people signed up to the campaign’s page on the social networking site Facebook.
And celebrities and politicians, including author Nick Hornby, who has a son with autism, cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, and Sarah Brown, the wife of the prime minister, posted video clips supporting the campaign on the YouTube website.
Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, one of the 20 charities, said: “It has been fantastic to see so many thousands of people in the UK and worldwide getting behind World Autism Awareness Day and doing their bit to ‘stand up for autism’.”
Meanwhile, Ivan Corea, chief executive of the UK Autism Foundation, which campaigns for families with autism below the poverty line and took part in the campaign, called for an increase in disability benefits. He said many families had had their homes repossessed.
Corea welcomed a letter written to him by Gordon Brown, who praised World Autism Awareness Day and said the government was improving services in a number of ways, including: the appointment of Elaine Hill, a national adviser on autism; researching the best way to help councils and other agencies gather data, assess needs and commission autism services; and funding a study on the prevalence of autism in adults.
Brown said the government was also about to consult on a new national autism strategy (the consultation was launched on 29 April).
Corea said the government had “accomplished a great deal on autism”, but added: “We really do need an end to the postcode lottery to public services – people are desperate for public services in education, health, specialist speech therapy and respite care.”
There was also success for another autism campaigner. Polly Tommey, founder of the Autism Trust and mother of a son with autism, organised a billboard campaign across London, aimed at securing a meeting with the prime minister.
The billboards, addressed to Gordon Brown, said “I can save you £508million a year”, “I can help you get people back to work” and “I can help you to cut the divorce rate”.
Tommey is raising money to set up a national network of autism centres of excellence, with the first in Hertfordshire to have accommodation for 50 residents.
Her campaign succeeded, with Tommey meeting the prime minister’s health adviser, Greg Beales, on 15 April and due to meet care services minister Phil Hope on 5 May. The prime minister also promised to meet her.
The autism education charity Treehouse used World Autism Awareness Day to launch research revealing that one parent in ten had had to move to a different local authority in order to obtain better services, and that nearly a quarter of councils did not know how many children with autism lived in their area.
Treehouse also launched a website, www.talkaboutautism.org.uk, where parents and carers can share their experiences and find information on autism education.
Meanwhile, the government used the day to announce new guidance on commissioning autism services for the NHS and local authorities.
Care services minister Phil Hope said: “I want the NHS to start driving improvements in services for people with autism, starting with taking this guidance to heart. It will be a small start in what I hope will be a big movement for change.”