The last week has seen a lot of autism-related reporting in the national press, on social media and on television and radio. And yet, we still need to raise awareness, we still need to ensure that acceptance is something that can be taken for granted and that accommodations and reasonable adjustments will happen as a matter of course. There are some amazing people out there campaigning publicly on the national and international stage, and yet you could go into a cafe, a library or even a school and find  people who simply don’t realise that they have a part to play in this.

For the past few months, much work has been going on behind the scenes in Herefordshire to try to change this. Halo Leisure has set up a regular autism friendly swimming session in Leominster. All of the staff at Hereford’s Old Market shopping centre have undertaken autism awareness training. Hereford’s Co-op stores have been hard at work on the fundraising side, too.

The week started early, with a fantastic visit to Hereford Sixth Form College’s ASPIES Society (Autistic Spectrum People in ‘Ereford SixthForm). Members of the society gave staff and volunteers a brilliant insight into what it is like to study in a busy environment. This was followed by a short training session to staff by local volunteers.

There was plenty going on, with local schools and shops involved in fundraising, and several information sharing events. But the highlight of the week was a mini-conference held at the Saxon Hall community centre. There was time and space to find out more about some local products and services, with a wide range of stalls and stands. The raffle raised much needed funds, and the star prize was a year’s subscription to the Operation Diversity Academy. There were also two wonderful speakers, who had the audience enthralled, amused and enraged in turn, at different stages in their presentations.

Chris Bonnello (Autistic not Weird) spoke in the morning, before heading off to Australia. We heard all about his experiences as a schoolboy, through university, teacher training and working in schools. It was a roller coaster ride of laughs and emotions, as Chris shared with us some of the highs and lows he has experienced. Parents and teachers were equally keen to hear his advice. If you haven’t already read his compilation of heartwarming quotes from children and young people What we Love most about Life, do check it out.

Robyn Steward, recently arrived back in the UK from Singapore, offered an incredible opportunity for the entire audience to ask anything at all. Questions varied from the vagaries of the diagnostic pathway, to understanding the diagnostic process, including different assessments that people might encounter. There was a great deal of open and honest debate and sharing of advice and best practice. Adults, parents and educators all benefitted, as the questions continued. None were unanswered, and everyone appreciated the chance to ask and share without judgement. Her excellent book, The Independent Woman’s Handbook for Super Safe Living on the Autistic Spectrum is a must read.

National conferences are one way to enhance our knowledge, but this event showed just how powerful locally organised events can be. Congratulations and thanks go to all involved.

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