Social entrepreneurs: We all have a role to play in empowering people with autism – and we all benefit

Adam Harris is a social entrepreneur who wants to give people with autism in Ireland more of a voice, and to encourage an autism-friendly society

TEDx talk: Adam Harris tries to give the  audience at DCU an insight into being a person on the autistic spectrum.

TEDx talk: Adam Harris tries to give the audience at DCU an insight into being a person on the autistic spectrum.

 

Imagine being placed on a spaceship and blasted into outer space, only to arrive on a planet not built for you. That’s the scenario painted last month by Adam Harris at a TEDx talk in Dublin City University, where he wanted the audience to get an insight into being a person on the autistic spectrum.

On this new planet, the environment is overwhelming: every smell, texture and noise grates. You don’t speak the language, and you can’t figure out whether the “aliens” are being angry or friendly, Harris said. “You are no less capable or intelligent than anyone else, but you cannot learn the same way.”

It’s an anxiety-inducing scenario, but it is one that many people with autism face, according to Harris, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (a condition on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum) when he was five years old and who is now an advocate for a more autism-inclusive society.

“People with autism think differently; they have special interests,” he says. “By making a decision to include those with autism, we don’t just benefit those people; we radically improve our society by bringing in people who think outside the box.”

Harris is on a mission to make it so, and the social entrepreneur has started by giving people with autism, and their families and carers, more of a voice.

Giving back

“I was very fortunate to benefit from early intervention and I was integrated into mainstream education,” he says. “By the time I was 16 I felt incredibly fortunate and I wanted to do something to give back to the autism community.”

The notion of supporting the autism community came naturally to the Wicklow man, who is now 20. “I come from a family where we all got involved in the community, so I went into it with an attitude of ‘Why wouldn’t I do this?’ ” he says. “So I called a meeting in the centre of Dublin, and about 30 people turned up.”

Inspired by that initial meeting of parents, teachers and people with autism, Harris started writing a blog about living with Asperger’s, and the resulting media attention soon made him realise there was an appetite for more.

He set up asiam.ie as a central hub for the autism community. As well as offering information about autism, the website acts as a forum where people with autism and their families and friends can discuss issues that affect them.

“If you are a parent, when you get a diagnosis for your child it can be extremely challenging, or maybe you are going through a really difficult time with your child and you don’t know where to turn to get the support you need,” says Harris. “Or maybe you are an adult with autism who has left school and wants to get a job but finds it really difficult.”

 

Autism-friendly schools

Harris also wants to help “neurotypical” people to broaden their understanding of autism, and he is starting with a programme of workshops in secondary schools, where trained facilitators, many of whom have autism or have a family member with autism, encourage students to be more aware of the condition, and what life is like with it.

“We have had integration policies in Irish schools for a long time, so in many cases people with autism will go to their local school, and that is fantastic to be educated in your local community with kids your own age in the same town,” he says.

“But we need to increase the knowledge of students. A person with autism might have challenging behaviour; sensory challenges; they might find socialising difficult; they might have huge abilities that would be unusual for their age; or unusual interests.

“Without an understanding of that, they can get labelled as ‘odd’ or ‘weird’ and be isolated or picked on, and the person with autism might not talk about their condition.”

The schools programme focuses on how we all have challenges, and it gets students thinking about the sensory, communication and practical issues that a person with autism might face.

“You would not believe what you can achieve in 90 to 100 minutes with students; they are really enthusiastic about being more autism friendly; they are really engaged with it,” he says. “And at the end, the students come up with a class charter for autism inclusion.”

 

Driven to grow

Harris is now growing the social enterprise to ensure that people with autism can succeed and thrive “as they are”. He is expanding the schools programme and wants to extend workshops into the local and business communities so that people can see the benefits of being “autism-friendly”.

“We have to change Irish attitudes and get people to realise that whether you are the local football coach or garda or teacher or businessperson, you have a role to play in empowering people with autism,” he says.

“And there’s a strong business case for being inclusive, for making small adaptations to enable people with autism to work with you and to be your customers.”

Harris has a packed schedule, but he is driven by knowing the social enterprise is helping others.

“When you open emails from parents saying their child just got a diagnosis and they went on the website and now they know where to turn, or an email from a student saying, ‘Thanks for coming to my school; now my fellow pupils understand why I am different and I can talk about it.’ That’s what keeps you going.”

Asiam.ie is a winner of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Programme: see socialentrepreneurs.ie

For more about autism, see irishtimes.com/thehealthcentre

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