Act for Autism forum: the wrap-up
On Monday 12 November, Amaze held the first ever State election forum on autism, Act for Autism.
Co-hosted by Aspergers Victoria, Different Journeys, the I-CAN Network and Yellow Ladybugs, and moderated by Walkley Award-winning journalist Louise Milligan, the forum brought together the Autism spokespeople from the Labor, Liberal, Greens and Reason parties to discuss how their parties will act for autism over the next four years.
More than 100 members of the autism community filled the hall at State Library Victoria to hear from Gabrielle Williams MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Carers and Volunteers (Labor); Bernie Finn MP, Shadow Assistant Minister for Autism Spectrum Disorder (Liberal); Samantha Ratnam MP, Leader of the Victorian Greens; Fiona Patten MP, Leader of Fiona Patten’s Reason Party.
The robust discussion commenced with the highly-anticipated Victorian State Autism Plan. We were gratified to hear multi-partisan commitment to the Plan – this vital piece of work is the number one priority in Amaze’s election manifesto, and the autism community has waited more than two years to see it realised. Amaze will work with the next Victorian Government to ensure the plan has a clear vision, and includes autism-specific funded initiatives and programs to achieve this vision.
For the first time, Ms Williams announced that, if re-elected, Labor will accept all 101 recommendations from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Services for People with Autism. This outcome is a vital first step in addressing the significant barriers faced by autistic people, their families and supporters: a more autism-responsive NDIS, more opportunities for autistic people’s participation in sport and community, more peer support and building higher awareness of the differing needs of the growing number of autistic women and girls.
The forum audience was among the first groups to see a series of TV commercials which will form the basis of a public education campaign to build community understanding and acceptance of autism. The development of the campaign strategy and creative was funded by the Andrews Government, and our question to the panel was simple: if elected, will you provide $5 million over three years to broadcast this campaign to positively change attitudes and behaviours towards autism?
Ms Williams was clear that a re-elected Andrews Government would fund the campaign, saying “We don’t fund organisations to design these campaigns to have them shelved… the ad campaign is definitely going to happen”.
Mr Finn was equally enthusiastic but less firm on the Liberal commitment, “I think the advertisements are sensational… at that time [of seeing the ads], we were in the process of finalising the autism strategy, so unfortunately I couldn’t reach into the till and pull out another $4 million at that time … but if I am the Assistant Minister for Autism, I would pursue it with a passion”.
Education was a major topic throughout the event, with all parties unanimously expressing their belief in developing a strengths-based approach and building flexibility into the education system – especially in times of transition, such as the move to high school – to support autistic students to achieve on equal footing with their non-autistic peers. When asked about the use of restrictive interventions, such as restraints, in schools, Mr Finn cut to the point: “If I have anything to do with it, if we’re in government, that will never happen again.” Ms Williams spoke of Labor’s “high bar” for safety standards, particularly in relation to restraint noting it’s “a piece of work we’ll continue with… it’s [an issue] I’m happy to take away and do further investigation.”
Each party also committed to ensuring autistic engagement and representation in the royal commission into Victoria’s mental health services: Ms Williams stated, “I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of the royal commission… I will certainly be prepared to personally undertake to ask that [autism] be part of it.” Ms Patton and Ms Ratnam both committed to pushing for a specific focus on autism in the commission’s terms of reference. Mr Finn stated “Irrespective of whether we have a royal commission or not, this is an area we must address… it’s something I would pursue, whether we’re in government or opposition.” When speaking on emergency services intervention for autistic families, Mr Finn emphasized the need for education of responders, saying, “Many [emergency services] are stretched…. what they need is education – they need a program to teach them how to handle people with autism”.
Speaking for more than 90 minutes, the panel covered almost every priority area in Amaze’s Election Manifesto, and we welcomed both new and renewed commitments from all parties to take action on the vital issues impacting autistic Victorians and their families.
The Act for Autism campaign is far from over – 85% of Victorians have a personal connection to autism and there is a high level of public support for change to improve education and employment outcomes for autistic people. Autism isn’t a niche issue.
Amaze will continue to work with all parties to ensure autism remains a high priority for any incoming government, and you can make a difference, too: download the Election Toolkit to find out how you can Act for Autism in the lead-up to the Election on 24 November.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Gabrielle Williams, Bernie Finn, Samantha Ratnam and Fiona Patton for taking the time to participate in the forum and with a spirit of openness and respect. I also extend our sincere thanks to Louise Milligan her incisive and gracious moderation of the discussion.
Most importantly, thank you to every member of the autism community who submitted questions or attended the forum – your insights and contributions are central to creating meaningful change, and I am deeply appreciative of your continued advocacy and support.