World's first autism show offers a chance to shine

Event will bring disability into the open and celebrate its links with creativity

The cavernous halls of the ExCel centre in London's Docklands are the place to show off the grand and spectacular – a favoured venue for exclusive car and boat shows.

But yesterday an exhibition of a different order was getting under way. The Autism Show, which is believed to be the only event of its kind in its world, aims to show autistic people can shine in all areas of life.

Featuring more than 90 exhibitors from specialist toymakers to care providers and with one of President Obama's chief advisers on disability issues as a guest speaker, the show is focused on bringing autism into the open.

"If society wants autistic people to play a part, they have to let us be who we are in all areas of life," said Steve Barker, a concert flautist who was diagnosed with autism late in life and also has Tourette's Syndrome. "Not just where it's convenient."

Mr Barker, whose orchestra is resident at the Sage concert hall in Gateshead, is speaking at the event on the link between autism and creativity. Yesterday he demonstrated how the obsession with structure and pattern that goes into creating works of art, in particular music, was mirrored in the workings of the autistic mind. "I feel fine when I'm on the stage. Society is willing to tolerate me on a stage. It's when I come off the stage that it's not so easy, he said. "If society is willing to take typical people with all their good and bad points, then why not the atypical people too?"

The Autism Show was set up by husband and wife Geoff and Nargis Soppet last year, after their son was diagnosed with autism at the age of four. "When the diagnosis came through, we were like everyone else," said Geoff. "We knew very little about autism and didn't know where to turn. We knew from personal experience that the need for something like this was massive."

Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a member of National Council on Disability, which advises the White House on disability policy, said it was time to change policies that treated people with cognitive disabilities "like children".

"It is about self-advocacy," he said. "We should not impose 'normalcy' in an autistic person but rather allow people with cognitive disabilities to communicate what their own needs are."

Jackie Hough, 48, from Leicester, whose nine-year-old son has autism, said that the event the event showed that people were becoming more willing to talk openly about the condition.

"There is just an amazing wealth of information here," she said. "The most important thing is to learn from other parents, whose support makes you more confident. Local support networks are vital and this allows all of them to come together and share their thoughts."

The organisers hope to take the show to other cities around the country.

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