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In celebration of Autism Awareness month, South East Technological University (SETU) hosted an Autism Awareness and Acceptance Event at its Wexford Campus.

According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological, developmental disorder which affects how people with ASD communicate, socialise, and interact with others. It is also characterised by restrictive, repetitive behaviours, interests, and activities. Research tells us that the prevalence of ASD diagnoses has increased drastically over the past number of years. In 2016, the NCSE noted that one in 65 children, or 1.5% of the school-going population, in Ireland had a diagnosis of autism.

The aim of this event was to highlight practical strategies and supports that can help people with autism to feel accepted in both higher education, and society at large. In particular, the event showcased the support available at SETU for children and adults with autism. It also highlighted local support available via organisations in county Wexford who work to support those with autism and their families.

Katie Murphy, Education Liaison Officer at SETU in Wexford and parent to a 15-year-old with ASD commented, “From my experience and research to date, I have found that many people across Ireland have heard of autism, and many have been impacted by it some way. Whether they themselves have a diagnosis, their child(ren), a family member, a friend, or someone in their community. It is also evident that there appears to be huge misconceptions around what ASD is, how it presents itself and how it can affect an individual. Our hope for this event was that these misconceptions and stereotypes could be addressed, and attendees leave feeling informed. As the mother of a child with autism, I am extremely passionate about all things related to equality, diversity, and inclusion, and in particular, the removal of barriers to accessing higher education. I have witnessed the incredible support that each student in SETU receives. I know that access and inclusion for all is an integral part of SETU’s values.”

Dr Teresa Mulhern, Psychology Lecturer at SETU in Wexford commented, “This event demonstrates a real and tangible move from acceptance towards true and meaningful inclusion and signifies SETU's commitment towards embracing different perspectives and experiences. For too long, neurodivergent populations have been excluded from accessing education because of non-inclusive practices and having a university in the south east that caters towards this population will have long-term beneficial outcomes in the realms of self-esteem, employment, and inclusion. Growing up autistic in Ireland was a challenge - not due to the autism itself, but because of the societal barriers which seek to manage and enforce expectations. Despite these barriers, I was able to access higher education, which was only possible because of the love and unconditional acceptance of my family. It is now incredibly important to me that others do not face the same barriers, and instead, only experience the beneficial growth that accompanies higher education on the autism spectrum”.

Several exhibitors attended the event to provide support to attendees and expert-led talks gave valuable insight on resources available to people with autism. Representatives from organisations such as Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (AADI); SENCO Sensory Solutions; Cottage Autism Network (CAN), Dream Big Project; Premier Sensory Solutions; Collective Sensory Group; and Little Kneaders all demonstrated the great work being carried out in the wider community to support people with autism.

The value of hosting such an event at SETU, and in the local community of Wexford, cannot be understated. Ray O’Brien from SENCO Sensory Solutions commented, “Awareness is everything when it comes to additional needs. Every parent is an expert, and every expert is a step closer to improvement. Thanks for including SENCO at this great event". Bobby Devereux, a volunteer from Cottage Autism Network (CAN) commented, “This was a brilliant experience, and a great opportunity to see all these great organisations in one place.”

Photo: L-R Claire Butterly, Professional Practice Placement Coordinator at SETU and Katie Murphy, Education Liaison Officer at SETU in Wexford at the Autism Awareness and Acceptance Event at SETU in Wexford.