This week is Autism Acceptance Week. According to the National Autistic Society, there are 700,000 adults and children in the UK who are autistic – roughly 1 in 100. As a spectrum condition that affects how people communicate and interact with the world, autistic people are often misunderstood, which can lead to feelings of being silenced or unwelcome. However, autistic people – like everyone – have strengths and talents to be celebrated. And with more acceptance, understanding and support, we can make the world we live in inclusive for everyone.
There is a very strong link between autism and homelessness. Research conducted with a number of charities found that the rate of autism in those experiencing homelessness was around 12%, much higher than the national average. Because of this, members of the St Mungo’s team who are autistic have a unique ability to engage with the people we work with. We heard from Michalina Popiolek, one of our Involvement and Inclusion Coordinators about her experience as an autistic person and how this allows her to communicate with the people we support:
Being Autistic means being and knowing that you are different, and this is the root of the exclusion we experience. Being different is only good when the difference is accepted, celebrated and understood to be a natural, useful and necessary part of society and, most importantly, is accommodated for. In order to create a space of belonging for Autistics we need to create spaces where Autistic experience is recognised and validated; where Autistic expression is the norm and Autistic communication is understood; spaces where Autistics can come and be together.
Similarly, homelessness is more than just not having access to a physical space we can occupy: homelessness is about exclusion. A home is where the roots, identity, sense of psychological safety and feeling of belonging is. Hence when working alongside homeless people, we need to create spaces where they feel that they belong.
Because Autism is so prevalent amongst the homeless population, I discovered that working at St. Mungo’s meant working amongst many Autistic people. I could speak with clients directly, we understood each other’s way of showing empathy, I could focus on processing information rather than ‘appropriate eye contact’ – as the eye contact was not required. We shared the same seriousness and the same sense of humour. I could communicate with many people in a way that felt natural to me and to them and this, in turn, created the sense of togetherness and connection. Spending a good portion of my day with other Autistics gave me a sense of belonging that I have not experienced before.
St Mungo’s is in such a strong position to create a space of belonging for Autistic people. The large proportion of Autistic clients means that many non-Autistic staff at St. Mungo’s have already developed either expertise or professional curiosity concerning Autistic experiences. We already have the Diversity & Inclusion and Client Involvement strategy and Toolkits, all we have to do now is to recognise and enable the power of Autistic connections to lead the way home.