Arutz Sheva met Dame Stephanie Shirley, the founding UK Ambassador for Philanthropy, on the sidelines of the 2012 International Autism Conference which was held last week in Jerusalem.

“The seam of the conference has been a positive one of hope,” she said. “What needs to come out and what will be assessed is the quality issue. It’s one thing to have a dream of hope, but what are the practical things we can do in the next few years for this very vulnerable sector?”

She added that “so much has happened” for autistic people over the last 20 years and said that in the next few years people will “begin to understand what autism is and we shall then know how to intervene, how to value the skills of the autistic community and how to move forward generally.”

“The definition of autism has changed enormously to include people with autistic characteristics who have high intellect,” she noted. “It’s not just the 30% who also have a learning disability. The awareness is such that the diagnosis is much better. People are no longer institutionalized, they’re no longer considered uneducable. These people have always been here as part of society. It’s just that we’ve learned to value them.”

Dame Stephanie Shirley has her own personal connection to autism. Her son, born in 1962 when autism was considered a rare disorder, was autistic and passed away 13 years ago from an epileptic seizure.

“He achieved a dignified, if sheltered life in the community, and did really very well for his disability,” she said, “but it’s an early death and very difficult to take.”