Autism strategy launch supported by locals

AUTISM SUPPORT: Mount Gambier/Berrin resident Shekinah Horsburgh excitedly showcases the first South Australian Autism Strategy. Picture: CHARLOTTE VARCOE

Charlotte Varcoe

“I FIND being able to say that I am autistic is the most validating thing in the world,” Mount Gambier/Berrin resident and autism advocate Shekinah Horsburgh said.

Recently Ms Horsburgh attended the official launch of the South Australian Autism Strategy.

The strategy includes seven key focus areas including pathways to diagnosis, positive educational experiences, thriving in the workplace and access to support and services.

Other focus areas include participation in the community, access to health and mental health services as well as interactions with the justice system.

The strategy also aims to improve access to mainstream supports and services while also considering the built environment and constraints to access for people with disabilities.

Community attitudes and disability inclusion is also a focus alongside increasing workforce participation, improving educational outcomes and experiences and pathways for people with disabilities from education to employment.

Ms Horsburgh was first diagnosed with autism at age 20 after being diagnosed with a range of different neurodivergent qualities .

“I was diagnosed with a few different things when I was seven including obsessive compulsive disorder, tic-disorder and generalised anxiety disorder,” Ms Horsburgh said.

“But then my mum and dad noticed more things going on and they thought there was more to this.”

She said psychologists and doctors would tell her and her family she was “too social” to be autistic, something Ms Horsburg now realised was because she was female.

“When I was 18 I went looking for a diagnosis and when I asked if I could go through the process with a psychologist I got told there was no point,” Ms Horsburg said.

“That was gut wrenching because I knew I was autistic but a couple of years later I was seeing a different psychologist and I was in my final year of university where I was studying music.

“There were a lot of things I struggled with and now looking back at it I know that was probably because of my autism.”

She said when she was finally diagnosed it was the “best feeling in the world”.

“My family were involved in the process and my psychologist at the time talked to them and asked lots of questions as you have to do lots of different forms and surveys,” Ms Horsburgh said.

“When I saw that Emily Bourke had been made the Assistant Minister for Autism I was super excited and they were talking about how this strategy was going to be created.

“I was really worried the autistic community was not going to be speaking for themselves because if you look through history pretty much anything within disability advocacy, our voice is squashed a lot.”

Worried history would repeat itself, Ms Horsburg contacted Ms Bourke and became a statewide advocate, being involved in advocacy groups.

Speaking on the strategy, Ms Horsburgh said she welcomed all focus points from the justice system support through to getting a diagnosis.

“The two which stand out for me are getting a diagnosis because it is really hard getting a diagnosis and being taken seriously,” she said.

“It is about breaking down those barriers and making it easier to get a diagnosis because we understand a diagnosis is life changing.”

Ms Horsburgh said the other highlight in the strategy for her was the focus on school and learning.

“I was lucky that my parents recognised fairly early on about how I learned and the things I was interested in and they were the best, the empowered me a lot and they were really on my side when it came to my teachers and explained what I needed,” she said.

Ms Horsburgh said it was incredible that students across the state would have access to an autism inclusion teacher with others being upskilled to understand what autism is and how those diagnosed need to learn differently.

“The fact we have an Assistant Minister for Autism felt so validating in itself because I feel like they care about my life and they are excited and passionate to help but the strategy itself is really exciting because other people can use it including workplaces,” she said.

“Even though this is the culmination of years of work for Emily and the thousands of people who have been helping it is still very much the beginning and this is growing, it is only just the beginning of it.”