Opinion: ‘Making Peterborough more autism friendly’

Peterborough MP Paul Bristow writes his regular column for the Peterborough Telegraph...

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 5:00 am
Medeshamstede Academy PHOTO: Paul Bristow
Medeshamstede Academy PHOTO: Paul Bristow

Last year, I wrote in these pages about my ambition to make Peterborough an autism-friendly city.

When we are taking buses and trains again, some relatively small changes would help people with autism to travel more easily. When sports facilities reopen properly, we can do more to help everyone participate.

The same applies to layout features in our city centre. We can now start to think about life after lockdown and the ways we can make it better – for those with autism and for others.

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It’s a thought process that should become second nature. More than anything, it’s about being aware and showing some consideration for those with a different experience of the city.

For example, the Government estimates that 15% of children in the UK have a learning difficulty. Many of those children in Peterborough suffer from negative school experiences.

Across the country, 70% of autistic students report being bullied. We are not immune to bullying and other problems here. Changing attitudes is important.

Over the last few days, I was delighted to support Neurodiversity Celebration Week. The celebration might be news to you, but that’s precisely why I’m writing about it.

Because we should celebrate the strengths, talents and different perspectives that our neurodiversity brings, not just fixate on the challenges. The celebration week is a great way to do this.

Its founder, Siena Castellon, is inspirational. She wants to change the stigma, stereotypes, misconceptions and narrative surrounding developmental difficulties. That includes autism. It also includes ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Worldwide, over 1,400 schools and more than 875,000 students took part. Those are big numbers, but they have plenty of scope to increase.

We can start by getting more Peterborough schools involved next year. Alongside the free neurodiversity resources for classroom teachers, it fits perfectly with becoming an autism-friendly city in every way.

SEND = Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. As our city council rightly says, “SEND is everyone’s business.” I’m asking for their help to get every Peterborough school signed up for the 2022 events.

Another important aspect of an autism-friendly city is jobs. There’s an untapped talent pool of autistic people in Peterborough, who we can get into meaningful employment.

I’m working with Dan Harris, a director at Deloitte, to take this forward. We want more businesses to have an Autism at Work programme. If you’re at a company without one and would like to know more, please do get in touch.

This being Peterborough, it’s no surprise to see generosity already having results. This includes support from Deloitte for Medeshamstede Academy.

The Academy is the only school of its kind in Peterborough, dedicated to children with autistic spectrum conditions. It has 114 pupils aged four to 14, most of whom live in the city.

Dan’s own son is on the autistic spectrum. He told me: “I am so proud of Deloitte for making an impact that matters. I have seen first-hand how laptops have helped unleash the unique but often hidden skills of our autistic children, with digital technology truly giving many non-verbal pupils a voice.”

The council’s cabinet member for children’s cervices, Cllr Lynne Ayres, was at Medeshamstede Academy to see the laptops for herself. It’s great to have her support for Neurodiversity Celebration Week.

All of us can help to make a difference.