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The Autism Community Needs to Pay Attention to Climate Change

It Takes Inclusion to Be Resilient

By Dr. Krista Singleton-Cambage, Founder and CEO, Sustainability Connections

The annual climate change gathering kicked off last week, with delegates from around the world descending on Bonn, Germany. The rotating host country this year is Fiji and, in an interesting partnership, they are bringing the Pacific to Europe to hold the meeting near the UN Climate Change Headquarters.

The participants – representatives from governments and international institutions, corporate lobbyists and NGOs – will discuss steps that each country is taking to reduce its carbon emissions, increase its use of renewable energy, and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. This last issue speaks really to resilience – how countries, companies, and communities in different situations all over the world are preparing for more storm surges and floods, rising sea levels, drought, heatwaves, erosion, and stress to natural systems such as coral reefs and wetlands. They will talk about the impact on people in different situations, as the Paris Agreement two years ago noted that climate change is “a common concern of humankind” and that the rights of all people should be taken into consideration when taking action to address climate change. [1]

A group largely absent from these discussions to date is the autism community. Not surprisingly, a changing climate – and the complex moving parts working together to address this – are not commonly on the agenda of those who are grappling with issues much closer to home – societal acceptance, basic communication needs, special planning at schools, medical appointments, therapies, and lack of employment. Yet organizations that aim to help individuals with autism and their families need to pull up a chair at the climate discussions. This is important for two reasons: to help those with autism prepare for a changing future, and to ensure that their input is woven into the allocation of adaptation resources and activities.

First of all, preparation matters a great deal. Many people with autism need certainty and predictability as an essential part of their lives. Changes in routine and surroundings can be extremely difficult. Many also find different sensory input – sounds, smells, lighting – to be distracting or even such an onslaught to the senses that one is unable to function. Layered upon this is often the inability to communicate calmly and clearly what someone may need or desire.

The impacts of climate change are likely to exacerbate all of these stressors. The period from 2013-2017 is set to be the hottest 5-year period on record, [2] and the severity and frequency of extreme weather events are increasing. Grappling with these changes, communities are trying to plan for what may be called “inevitable uncertainty”. This goes to the heart of what the autism community focuses on: helping individuals and their families prepare for uncertain situations. Autism organizations need to know more about what is coming and be connected to organizations around the world to best prepare families for what may lie ahead. Autism organizations are also able to help families with autism advocate for policy change and support in adapting to the impacts of climate change.

At the same time, the autism community has many lessons to share about how to communicate most effectively when the outcome is unknown. In order to be truly inclusive and effective, adaptation projects need to consider the ways that information is delivered across communities: to prepare both for extreme sensory overload due to a sudden environmental change, such as a storm, as well as the more gradual erosion of one’s surroundings and the natural resources they depend on. In times of natural disasters, some autism organizations provide local information to families on how to prepare. [3] Such efforts need to be scaled up in a more systematic way and inclusive communication techniques should be included across core adaptation planning activities.

Secondly, this population is significant in terms of development, education, and employment policy planning overall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) have autism, [4] though a National Health Survey in the United States suggests that this should be increased to 1 in 54. [5] Globally, the World Health Organization, which takes into account the great disparity in autism reporting across the world, estimates that an average of 1 in 160 people have autism. [6] The prevalence of autism, together with a growing recognition that climate change and consequent environmental changes and disasters will “disproportionately impact disabled people” [7] points to the importance of including people with autism and their families in community-based planning to reduce vulnerabilities. [8]

As the hurricanes recently swept across the Caribbean and southern United States, and coastal communities were engulfed in flood after flood, I wondered how those with autism had been factored into resilience planning. Did they have social stories or briefing on what was happening? How were they coping with the sheer magnitude of having their entire surroundings decimated? Had they been part of the decision about managing their coastlines? In the long aftermath, what services will they receive to try and understand what has happened? It is extremely difficult for people with full cognitive capabilities to grasp such a situation; how is adaptation planning being truly inclusive for those who may lack such capabilities?

What we do know is that this will happen more frequently. Cyclical weather patterns are giving way to ferocity and environmental shifts at an unprecedented scale along an uncertain path. As the delegates in Bonn debate how funding for adaptation may be allocated, they will move us closer to a vision of climate-resilient development. The momentum from this global process can, and should, funnel into the readiness of communities to deal with the impacts of climate change. Those with autism need to be part of this process to determine how projects can be most inclusive and appropriate, and to increase their resilience to the changes that are to come.

http://www.sustainabilityconnections.com  

Endnotes

[1] http://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/convention/application/pdf/english_paris_agreement.pdf

[2] https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/2017-set-be-top-three-hottest-years-record-breaking-extreme-weather

[3] https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/autism-safety-project/natural-disaster-resources; https://www.autism-society.org/news/affiliate-update-natural-disasters-hit-affiliates/

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

[5] https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/new-government-survey-pegs-autism-prevalence-1-45

[6] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/autism-spectrum-disorders/en/

[7] Wolbring, Gregor. A Culture of Neglect: Climate Discourse and Disabled People. M/C Journal,[S.I.] v.12, n.4, Aug 2009. ISSN 14412616. Available at: http://www.journal.mediaculture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/173

[8] https://www.iied.org/voices-people-disabilities-must-be-heard-climate-change-adaptation-debate

Originally published at www.spthree.com

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