Originally a statement to the Minister of Mental Health, whose remit currently also includes autism, at a meeting including various Autistic People’s Organisations and charities, on 2021-03-16.
When the idea of an autism commissioner was first mooted, we – AMASE, and most of the autistic people I talked to – were broadly supportive. The failures of the Scottish Strategy for Autism have been largely due to a lack of accountability, as the Accountability Gap report highlights; perhaps a commissioner, with the right powers and background, could ensure that the buck is not constantly passed from community settings to local authorities to central government and back again.
However, none of Scotland’s Autistic People’s Organisations were ever on board with a Commissioner for Autism & Learning Disabilities, as suggested by a campaign calling itself ‘Our Voice, Our Rights’! These groups have historically been grouped together in many contexts, and this has caused all sorts of problems. It was once thought that a majority of autistic people have learning disabilities, but more recent estimates put the figure closer to 30%, and some think it is lower still.
There are some similar challenges faced by autistic people and those with learning disabilities. But autistic people share challenges in common with many other minority groups: most especially, with other neurological minorities. So why are we back to talking about autism and learning disability together, in particular, when conflating the two has done so much harm to both populations, and led to so many misconceptions? This is something many people have been fighting against for decades, and setting up a new joint commission risks dramatically undermining this effort. We are opposed to any government plans treating these two groups as a unit, for the same reason.
In contrast, we would argue that a Neurodiversity Commission, covering not just autism and learning disability but the full range of human cognitive diversity, has the potential to be transformative, if it’s done right. The idea of neurodiversity is a powerful one — that different people process the world much more differently than most people realise, and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them, or they deserve fewer rights. This provides a starting point for dealing with neurodevelopmental disabilities of every sort: not just autism and learning disabilities, but dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and more.
Many of the barriers faced by all kinds of neurodivergent people stem from societal failures: in education, health and social care and the justice system, too many people fail to understand how much human minds vary, or assume that there is something wrong with anyone whose mind doesn’t work the way they expect. Making these differences less disabling, in all cases, means understanding how different minds work differently. The Scottish Government’s ‘Different Minds’ campaign has shown that it is at least starting to understand this idea!
Neurodiversity is sometimes misunderstood as something that is only relevant to people with relatively low support needs. This is completely mistaken; neurodiversity is for everyone! It means recognising the diversity of human minds at large. That means we should treat people with all different levels of support needs as fully human, and worth taking seriously. It is the most disabled among us who are most misunderstood, and whose human rights are most often abused.
We don’t object to the conflation of autism and learning disabilities because we want to distance ourselves from those with learning disabilities: we object because in practice, lumping these together has a long history of failing to meet the needs of people in either group. Conversely, understanding the many different ways that human minds vary is always required to meet the needs of neurodivergent and disabled people.
Anyone with any understanding of autism or learning disabilities knows that you can rarely sum up what makes someone different in a single label: some studies suggest that most autistic people meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD; we are more likely to be dyslexic; there is huge overlap with dyspraxia; and many autistic people — or our family members — do have learning disabilities, too. The broader picture of neurodiversity is essential to meeting the needs of all of these overlapping populations.
All disabled people have human rights to inclusion, communication and equal access to society. We also have a right to be ‘closely consulted and actively involved’ in decisions about us, through our representative organisations, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — which the Scottish Government have announced plans to incorporate into Scottish law in the next parliament.
A Neurodiversity Commission could help coordinate the widespread changes needed to turn Scotland into a place where the human rights of people with developmental disabilities – neurominorities – are met: where we are listened to, and learned from. For Scotland to live up to its CRPD obligations, there is a lot of work to be done ensuring autistic and other neurodivergent people are involved at every level of relevant decision-making by all public bodies: a challenging goal, but one that stands to help all of these bodies to do their best by the people they are trying to help.