Athlete with autism running across Australia
Dane Waites, a champion athlete with autism, will run more than 4,000 kilometres from Perth, WA to Pambula, NSW to raise funds for autism and mental health charities. Vision courtesy Perth2Pambula.
Sad and angry. That's how I feel. That's how many parents, grandparents and siblings of children with autism would feel too after the comments in Australia's Parliament by One Nation's Pauline Hanson.
Putting aside the repulsive manner by which she referred to getting "rid of these people" who say we want everyone to feel good about themselves, what her comments demonstrate is that her xenophobia and ignorance seem to know no bounds. We endured her ignorance surrounding vaccination only a few months ago. Now autistic children are in her sights.
Children with autism are different but their value to society is not. Too often parents of children with autism experience the consequences when people don't understand an autistic child. The disapproving looks from adults because your child chooses to dress differently or has a tantrum.
Not too long ago we went to Luna Park. The young girl in charge of the line could not understand why my daughter wouldn't follow her commands. She seemed to have no clue of what autism was or that it might explain her behaviour. I felt sorry for her. It wasn't her fault but a sign that she just had no experience or knowledge of autism – or children that behave differently.
I joined the board of Autism Awareness Australia because of the need to improve not only diagnosis and therapies, but also understanding of and support for autistic children. It is so disappointing to have a federal Member of Parliament and party leader display such a lack of empathy and understanding.
My beautiful autistic daughter attends St Lucy's at Wahroonga. She is not mainstreamed. I can only praise and give thanks for the dedication and skill of the school's staff for the love and education of my daughter and her schoolmates. They are a strength and an inspiration.
Would I like my daughter to attend a mainstream school? Of course, I would love her to have all the opportunities that my other children have. That is not to be for now.
Autism spectrum disorder, is just that, a spectrum that affect individuals differently in terms of behaviour, emotion and language. Sometimes autistic children can be brilliant but many find everyday interactions a challenge. Not only can many autistic children attend mainstream schools, they can make a valuable contribution to their classmates and school community.
When Pauline Hanson was supposedly told by parents that they wanted "to get rid of these kids", as someone who represents all her constituents, including autistic children and their families, her response should have been a commitment to advocate for more support for teachers and students. Some do need support and assistance in mainstream schools. The Autism Hub in Brisbane does that brilliantly in schools across Queensland.
Learning to understand and accept diversity is important for any child – and adult. The real world is diverse. Investment in education and therapies at a young age is the best way to allow children with autism to be able to function in society and make a contribution to it. So many parents of autistic children spend fortunes on therapy working to help their children.
Many businesses have learnt that the diversity that autism offers can be valuable. Whether it's a gift for numbers and mathematics or just the ability to think about problems in a different way, many autistic people are carving out successful careers. Others still struggle. However, both the ability of autistic people to contribute through employment and others to recognise the potential value of such a contribution is enhanced through access to mainstream education.
My daughter is my teacher. I am proud of her and grateful for what she teaches me. We can learn many lessons from people with autism and Senator Hanson seems to have more to learn than anyone. We should demand more from our Parliamentarians.
Professor Brian Owler is an Autism Awareness board member, a neurosurgeon at the Children's Hospital at Westmead and the former national AMA President.
This column has been updated to clarify Ms Hanson's quotes in the Senate.