Autism campaigners in Merseyside have launched a project to make Liverpool one of the UK’s first autism-friendly cities, and several high-profile organisations have already signed up to it.
The project is being run by Wirral-based charity Autism Together and Liverpool community business Autism Adventures UK. On April 1 they unveiled a 'Liverpool Autism Champions' emblem, which organisations that that have made a commitment to be more autism friendly can put on display.
Organisations that have already committed to become Liverpool Autism Champions include Everton FC, Liverpool John Lennon airport, National Museums Liverpool and leisure and retail destination Liverpool ONE.
Autism Together and Autism Adventures UK say action is needed as a significant number of people have autism – about 700,000 in the UK – and many are excluded from their own communities through lack of understanding.
This regional project is backed by Connect to Autism, a Department of Health-funded scheme being rolled out nationally by the Autism Alliance, a network of 18 autism charities. The scheme aims to increase awareness and understanding of autism across the UK. It is also backed by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce.
To become an Autism Champion an organisation makes a public commitment to train its staff in autism awareness. This includes how to recognise the signs that someone may have autism and how to handle challenging behaviour. Champions are also taught about the different ways people with autism can choose to communicate. For example, if someone is non-verbal, they may communicate via a voice app on an iPad.
Other Liverpool champions include 10 council-run Lifestyles fitness centres, Mersey Travel, New Mersey shopping park, soft play centre Mattel Play and the Signature Living hotel group.
Chief executive of Autism Together, Robin Bush (pictured), said: “We're incredibly ambitious for Liverpool. What we're seeking to do isn't easy and won't happen overnight. We're currently working with colleagues in the autism community to develop a nationwide set of criteria to define what we mean by an autism-friendly city. At the very least, we believe it should enable those with autism to confidently access community infrastructure such as shopping centres, tourist attractions and public transport.”
Julie Simpson, founder of Autism Adventures UK, added: “The reason I want to do something is I want my son Joe, who is 12, to have somewhere to play, eat or shop. I have had everything said by people over the years about Joe. Someone told me once that he needed a good smack. The only way to change people's perception is by educating them and raising awareness of the condition.
“It's so rewarding seeing business being open to the concept of being autism friendly. The response has been amazing. The thing that always drives me forward to do more is the thought I won't always be here to have Joe's back. It's my job as his mum to do all I can to leave a world that is ready for him. My motto is that I wouldn't change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.”
Champions will also be encouraged to make small adjustments to their premises to improve access to those with autism: they may advertise a quiet space for people experiencing anxiety, or agree to clearer signage or less glaring lighting.
Chief executive of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, Jenny Stewart, said: “Our city councillors are working hard to make Liverpool a fair and inclusive city and we're doing all we can to support this very worthwhile project as we all want Liverpool to head in the same direction, with equal community access available to all.”
Liverpool’s assistant mayor and cabinet member responsible for leisure, Councillor Wendy Simon, added: “This is a fantastic project and I’m delighted our Lifestyles Centres are playing a key role in Liverpool’s drive to be autism-friendly city in every aspect.
“Our fitness centres attract people from a whole host of diverse backgrounds, many with specific needs, and we want to make sure their Lifestyles experience is a positive one, encouraging them to keep active and continue to make healthy choices in life.”