London is the best city in the world, because it’s a place where people from all walks of life can live, work and love. I would defy anyone to name anywhere else on the planet which is more welcoming, open and inclusive.
But despite all of London’s great strengths, our city remains far too inaccessible for those living with autism. And the evidence shows quite plainly that individuals with autism are forced to battle against unacceptable discrimination.
For example, while having a job can be a great driver of social mobility, only 32 per cent of autistic people are in employment, and just 16 per cent are in full-time paid work. This comes at a time when 80 per cent of non-disabled people are in some form of work.
These unacceptable employment figures are most likely connected to the fact that autistic Londoners find it so much more difficult to travel around our city. The National Autistic Society recently revealed that over half of autistic people avoid public transport altogether.
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the stigma attached to autism shows no sign of significantly reducing. The depressing reality is that Londoners simply don’t have a good enough understanding of this condition, and this lack of awareness has led to a staggering 28 per cent of autistic people being asked to leave public spaces because of behaviour associated with the condition.
This situation is entirely wrong and desperately needs to change. In my new report, The Full Spectrum: Making London Autism Friendly, I have set out exactly what the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, should do to raise awareness of autism and make life easier for people living with the condition.
First, there can be no doubt that, as an employer, the mayor is in a uniquely powerful position when it comes to raising awareness of autism. Khan is the boss of London’s 30,000 police officers, Transport for London workers, and firefighters. I want the mayor to introduce mandatory autism training for all of these employees, so that they can better understand the challenges faced by autistic people in our city. This would be a game-changer for people living with autism.
Second, the sad reality is that autism barely features at all in the mayor’s strategy documents. Khan needs to establish a much greater policy focus on autism, especially when it comes to his health inequalities strategy or even the London Plan.
It is easy to underestimate the positive impact that autism-friendly design can have, with certain features helping those on the autistic spectrum to improve their focus and be more calm. Just a mention of autism in the London Plan could encourage developers to look at autism-friendly design.
Third, the National Autistic Society’s “Autism Friendly Award” has been instrumental in helping businesses understand the issues which autistic people face, and recognises those firms which have taken steps to become autism-friendly. The mayor should adopt this award and promote it across our city.
Finally, we need a proper, multi-agency approach to making London more accessible for autistic people which brings together local councils, NHS bodies, charities and businesses.
This holistic work should be underpinned by a substantial, all-age, London-wide autism strategy, which – among other measures – introduces a new service that directs autistic Londoners towards autism-friendly businesses and facilities.
The challenges faced by autistic people in London are unacceptably great, but by taking just a few modest measures the mayor could make a major difference for the better.
These changes would chime perfectly with the spirit and character of the most welcoming and inclusive city in the world.