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MALTATODAY 24 July 2022

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Julia Farrugia maltatoday | SUNDAY • 24 JULY 2022 OPINION The Rise of Gru SLOWLY but surely, barriers are coming down and stigma sti- fled as Malta's National Autism Strategy 2021-2030 unfolds in a manner that is already provid- ing a breath of fresh in the lives of many young men and wom- en together with their families. The more its new initiatives and ground-breaking projects take root, the nearer we get to a fair- er society where life is shared equally and beneficially by all. Take the Autism Friendly Spac- es Project, for example. I recent- ly had the pleasure to address a European Parliament conference organised by Autism Europe and hosted by my fellow country- man, the MEP Hon. Alex Agius Saliba, on this creative Strategy offshoot. Not only is the project a pioneering stride forward oc- curring at the same time we are discussing its advantages, but it is already obvious it will leave a tangible legacy. It was a pleas- ure to listen to Aurélie Baranger, the Director of Autism Europe, praising Malta for its Autism Friendly Spaces Project, and ap- plauding our country's proactive and unique approach. She went as far as to stress that the project should be mainstreamed in oth- er European countries to share the best practices among the Member States. Very often what seems to be a pretty routine thing, like going to the cinema as youth all over the world do, can mean tread- ing forbidden territory for teen- agers on the autism spectrum. Not anymore, thank goodness. For the first time ever, a Maltese or Gozitan teenager can enjoy his or her Saturday afternoon watching a movie in a cinema with their friends. A mundane event for most people suddenly becomes a defining moment in the lives of our young men and women. We all loved bursting out of the COVID-19 confines and restric- tions and finally being able to do the things we enjoyed before, like watching the latest attractions on the big screen. However, we go an important step forward as watching a captivating film like The Minions becomes a thrill to autistic teenagers on these islands. During the past week, this movie not only involved adequate lighting and popping of popcorn prior to its start but also subtitling for children with a hearing impairment. Thanks to this project, hun- dreds of children who were pre- viously excluded from watching their favourite movies have wit- nessed the Rise of Gru. Their happiness is shared by us all, par- ticularly their families and loved ones who until today, could not make this one special dream come true. Simple enough? Not as much as some would have had us believe. It certainly wasn't be- fore we launched our National Autism Strategy and such in- novative projects as the Autism Friendly Spaces project. But the project does not stop at the cinema or the popcorn par- lour. It is a growing experience, one that turns routine things for many into special moments for many others whose parents can now visit shops with children on The 3 Spectrum knowing full well it will be a new shopping experience for them all. Under- standing that most workers are trained how each and every cli- ent on the autism spectrum are welcomed in the shop and given that very enjoyable shopping ex- perience, is both comforting and empowering. Of course, such breakthroughs do not occur like instant coffee. There has to be specialisation and training, both of which are crucial not just to prepare staff and management at different es- tablishments, to make their busi- nesses autism-friendly, but also to foster more general awareness and acceptance among them as individuals. We have already seen people willingly making a personal commitment to be on board as this project gains speed, and I am sure many others will follow for it is both a noble ges- ture in being a part of it all, as well as a wise way of enjoying the fruit that is borne out of this ini- tiative. Rather than the end, this is the beginning of a journey dur- ing which we are determined to continue building on these bold and fulfilling practices as they evolve even further into a reality we all appreciate and feel proud of. The specific engagement of youth, the leaders of tomorrow, is also a commendable feature of this project and we have the right structure and the seamless attitude of such dedicated part- ners as PRISMS Malta, Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Dis- ability (CRPD) and Kunsill Naz- zjonali Żgħażagħ to help ensure that youth can be principal driv- ers for change and destroying stereotypes. A giant leap was achieved only a few days ago with the opening, by PRISMS Malta, of a youth space for young men and wom- en on the autism spectrum. It is a concrete example of how the Malta National Autism Strat- egy 2021-2030 goal of creating self-advocates and multipliers can be implemented in real life, at the very time we seek to re- alise other hopes and goals in a fast-changing world that may have its crises, but is also com- ing to terms with long-misun- derstood issues while bringing to fruition the four elements of fairness, equality, inclusion and accessibility in a society much more willing to listen and to act. It is in this way only that we, as both politicians and legisla- tors, can turn words into deeds. While accessibility, for example, was once reduced to a ramp with the right inclination and all's right with the world, we now un- derstand there are many other hurdles to overcome. We need our museums, for one example, to be accessible and where the lights are appropriate and the music levels are not intimidat- ing. Happily, we already have three of them on board. Again slowly but surely, the list continues to grow. These pro- jects and their fruitful results arouse our enthusiasm and send out a clear message to a more comprehending world. Gru will rise for all of us, from administrators and instigators to those young men and women and their families who finally see that the doors are truly opening. Julia Farrugia is minister for inclusion and social wellbeing

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