On May 26, the Fédération Québécoise de l’Autisme awarded its Hommage à l’innovation 2018 prize to Autisme sans limites (ASL) in recognition of its innovative project: an ecosystem of spaces that meet the diverse needs of autistic adults. In order to learn more about this distinctive structure, the Quartier de l’Innovation spoke with Lise-Marie Gravel, CEO of ASL. This devoted volunteer believes that autism concerns all of society, hence the importance of mobilizing local resources. Here is an overview of this innovative approach to social inclusion.
At ASL, you want the environment to adapt to autistic people and not the other way around?
We were inspired by the principle of universal design, which comes from the New York architecture field. We realised that if we lowered door handles, people in wheelchairs wouldn’t find themselves in a disabled situation. By adjusting the environment to suit the individual, we avoid manifesting the disability. When autistic people are young, it’s important to give them the tools to adapt to society, but once they’re adults, we need to let them be who they are. We focus more on improving the spaces in which they live. It’s one of the founding principles of our vision.
You’re talking about cognitively and socially high-functioning autistic adults. Does this group of people experience particular challenges in society?
The Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec recently revealed the conclusions of a big study that shook the autism community to its core. We knew they were in a bad way in terms of psychological health, but the study revealed that they also suffer from physical health problems. Under age 25, the death rate for people with autism is three times higher than for people without autism. The suicide rate is two times higher. If young autistic people isolate themselves once they leave the school system, they are more at risk of developing mental health issues. The number of autistic people in Quebec is still growing. This issue doesn’t only affect autistic people and their families; it’s a society-wide problem. If we don’t succeed in promoting the development and social inclusion of these young people, everyone will suffer the enormous loss.
Photo credit : Autisme sans limites
What solutions does Autisme Sans Limites bring to the table?
Our project is about creating an ecosystem of spaces for living, recreation and learning for high-functioning autistic adults. The spaces involved in this ecosystem are located in the heart of society, and not in an autistic ghetto. These spaces are being developed at the TNM, the Fine Arts Museum, the Grand Ballet, and in companies, schools and through the Quartier de l’Innovation’s Young Project.
You’ve assembled an impressive number of partners!
Yes! As it happens, our second aim is to mobilize key players in society to support these ecosystems. We have given ten sectors, including business and culture, specific roles to play in supporting the ecosystem, such as financial aid and actions for autistic youth. We are making society aware of its responsibility to support people with autism. This way, we won’t have to rely on the goodwill of whatever government happens to be in power. If one sector weakens, another will pick up the slack, and autistic youth will never be left to fend for themselves.
One important feature of your model is its attention to group diversity.
When we are in groups, we tend to imitate the behaviours of others. Therefore, by blending the group, we reduce the autistic dynamic. Social work, psychology and neuroscience students from UQAM and UdeM join in for the activities. Besides being beneficial for young autistic people, these are extraordinary experiences for the volunteers who want to become health professionals. It’s amazing what they can discover during dance therapy workshops, museum visits or by simply playing board games with autistic youth. Autism is a mask, and once we look underneath, we can see a person’s true potential.
Photo credit : Autisme sans limites
Can this diversity also be found in your organization?
Autistic people participate in our program creation because they know their reality best. We have an elder council made up of autistic adults over 45 who have succeeded professionally or personally. We adjust our proposals based on their commentary. Ultimately, we would like them to meet and inspire young people with autism.
What are the next steps for ASL?
Our aim is to create an active support model that we can ultimately present elsewhere in Canada and the world, like on World Autism Awareness Day at the UN. Our project is innovative and addresses the fundamental needs of autistic people. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a person must first have their physiological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs met before they can self-actualize. There is a tendency to push people with autism to self-actualize through work, but we are forgetting crucial steps. Our ecosystem allows people to develop holistically so that they can reach their full potential.
Lise-Marie Gravel is a recipient of the Canadian Women of Worth award, a program that honours inspiring volunteers.