Did You Make Your Vote Count?

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My 1200-1500 word piece for last semester’s portfolio. I designed it for the dummy magazine I created, Cognition – a magazine for parents with special needs children.
>Attaching the text in the designed spreads after this, just in case people don’t want to/can’t read the PDF above.

Did You Make Your Vote Count?

Apart from immigration, proportional representation and defence, there is a less considered aspect of the results of the 2010 UK elections. Polly Tommey, activist, editor and mother of a 14-year-old boy with autism, talks to Cognition about how the results of the General Election has ramifications for care of adults with autism, how she was criticized for doing something she believed in, and her plans to build an  Autism Trust in every county.

I am the mother of Billy, a 14-year-old boy with autism. When he was diagnosed, he was two and we did Tonight with Trevor McDonald and asked for help. There was no information about autism out there, and we wanted to know what to do with Billy who was very ill at the time. After that we were inundated with over 150,000 hits on the LWT site – people wanted help. It became apparent that something needed to be done. So I set up a newsletter so that people could answer each other’s issues and that turned into a magazine – the Autism File. We get many people writing in with their personal stories, so it’s not hard to put the magazine together.

Autism: The Unmentioned Word

Autism needs to be taken seriously by the main political parties and we want them to put it in their manifestoes. Mentioning the word ‘autism’ is a good start because we’ve got one in 40 boys in this country and one in 125 girls with autism. They’re going to grow into adults – what are we going to do with them? Where are they going to go?

We knew we had to appeal to the three main leaders this year, more so because of the general election. Last year’s ‘Dear Gordon Brown’ billboards, in which I wrote ‘Dear Gordon Brown, I can save you £508million a year. Please call me on my number…when it’s convenient. Many thanks’, was a success. I got my meeting with Gordon and Sarah Brown and Phil Hope, Minister of Care. Following that, they put me on an external reference group which advises the government on these matters. But this year, we want action and not just words.

The “Hello Boys” campaign follows on from that campaign. It says ‘ Hello Boys. Autism is worth over 6 million votes. It’s time to talk…’ We were advised by billboard professionals who said we had to do something that caught people’s eyes and get autism talked about and it certainly worked in that respect. “Hello Boys” is obviously talking directly to the three leaders. If it got the attention that we needed to take this to the next step, then it’s been worth it.

People from the autism community also feel that they will vote for a party that does more for adult autism care. They’re waiting to hear what I think about who it is they should vote for which puts a lot of onus on me. I’m never going to tell anyone to vote for anything; it’s got to be their decision. But I will state what it is that I feel and then everyone can make their minds up.

Reaction: Feminists and empty promises

As soon as the billboards went up, I got a fair few emails from women calling themselves ‘feminists’. They were of the opinion that it was disgraceful that I had to take my clothes off to get what I wanted. When I explained to them why I was doing it, they were fine or backed down. Well, I haven’t taken my clothes off. I’ve got a bra on. And you know what I think? I think it’s not a big deal when you deal with a cause such as this. I say to them: come and sit in my office for a week and listen to the calls we get and you’ll probably do the same if you could help these people. One mother emailed me and said she’d streak naked through Hyde Park if she thought it could help her son. It’s not like I was topless, it’s not like I was naked. I don’t think it was degrading at all.

We could have used a celebrity for the billboard campaign, but I don’t know of any celebrity that can talk about autism and that bothered me. If we got a celebrity on the board looking much better and grabbing attention, the problem with that is that they would be interviewed and I’m not sure that they would know what they were saying. I’m so passionate about what we’re trying to do; unless a celebrity has got the knowledge of autism, I don’t want to use them. If we mess this up just because we’ve used someone prettier and younger then it’s not going to help people with autism, which is what this is about.

All three leaders replied to me, which I thought was promising. But what I wanted was for them to write it into their manifesto of which only Gordon Brown’s team did. Gordon Brown mentioned the words autism and dyslexia, and said he was going to put more money into schools to support autistic and dyslexic people. They also pledged £500,000 for training the public sector. I was quite disappointed that David Cameron and Nick Clegg didn’t mention autism in their manifestoes.

Labour has been in power for a while and because of that and because we’ve managed to badger them, they understand that autism really is an issue. The problem is that if the other two get in, then we’re going to have to start again. That’s why my money is with Gordon Brown because although he’s not perfect, and nor is Labour – I mean, I’ve never voted Labour in my life – I do think that we’re starting to move somewhere with them. That means that I will support them because I need to get the autism issues carried on.

Building centres of excellence for autism

The Autism Trust, which is one of my ventures, is trying to build centres of excellence for autism. We need one in every county in this country because of the number of people with autism we’ve got. Anybody who has got any problem with a child with autism of any age can come there and get the help they need – be it a nutritionist or a dentist. The main point of the trust is that people with autism can go there and work. For example, my son is very good on the computer – we would try and get him employed to test computer games. We know a 43-year-old woman with autism who is brilliant at making scarves. She doesn’t know what to do with them so we would try and sell them in our shop.

We’re looking at land in Suffolk and Dorset at the moment. We have been offered land but it’s not suitable. It’s not suitable to put my son, for example, on a waste bit of ground where there are pylons going through it and it’s next to a motorway. And you know, I don’t think they should have second-best.

Autism is an international issue. It’s not just a British issue. We have the same high numbers and same problems of where they’re going to go around the world. We’re working with Dubai and the US through the Autism Trust so that we become part of a team where we all help each other. There are no rules and regulations, no leaders or no experts on this matter, because we haven’t had to deal with this before. So the idea about working internationally is that we form an international coalition, if you like, to work together to make the future of autism work.

And finally…

What’s next for me? First, it’s either working with Labour or getting to know the other party who might be in government. We really need to keep them aware that we’re here and as far as the campaign goes, that will always continue. Next, in the coming 12 months, the Autism Trust is working on getting the land for the centres and proving that what it is that we’re doing will work.


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