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Autism Sunday Campaign

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

I would like to begin by asking you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pass on my thanks to Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate this evening, and to express my gratitude at having been given the opportunity to inform the House about Autism Sunday, also known as the international day of prayer for autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

I declare an interest. I am a patron of the Romakey International Education Services charity based in my constituency. That charity provides young people with learning disability and autism with the necessary support to move from school into independent adulthood.

Autism Sunday was established to highlight the need to understand autism, and was one of the first global events of its kind. It was launched in 2002 here in the United Kingdom, with an historic service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The size of the issue cannot be underestimated. In my own borough, the London borough of Havering, it is estimated that there are over 1,412 adults on the autism spectrum. Nationally, there are over 750,000 people with autism, and it is estimated that there are up to 65 million people with autism around the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining a debate on this important subject. Does he agree that alongside Autism Sunday, initiatives such as the world Autism Awareness Week, which is from 2 to 8 April this year, are pretty important? Does he welcome what the National Autistic Society is doing in that week—launching a public awareness campaign, because it is important that we continue to increase awareness of autism, and understanding among the general public, particularly as the incidence seems to be on the increase?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her helpful intervention. Of course, we can work in our constituencies to make people aware of the effects of autism, but national organisations such as the National Autistic Society are doing a brilliant job of promoting more understanding of the issue across the United Kingdom.

May I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House for consideration? A large number of my constituents also have autism or autistic children. About 2,000 children in Northern Ireland have been waiting more than 20 months for a diagnosis. It is clear to me as an elected representative, and probably to the hon. Gentleman as well, that early diagnosis is critical if children are to get the correct treatment and the help they need. Does he agree that greater priority needs to be given to autism diagnosis, especially given the rising number of autistic children and adults across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: more needs to be invested in diagnosis. I commend him on the work he is doing in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is more awareness of this condition.

Autism Sunday was founded by British autism campaigners and committed Christians, Ivan and Charika Corea, who live in Buckhurst Hill, in Essex. It began as a small acorn of an idea, hatched in their front room, but today it has grown into a major global event celebrated in many countries throughout the world. This year, it will take place this coming weekend, on Sunday 14 February.

Our own Prime Minister has personally supported Autism Sunday, stating:

“I would like to express my support for Autism Sunday. As many as one in a hundred people could be affected by some form of autism, and it is important that we recognise and raise awareness of the difficulties and challenges that they can face.”

Autism Sunday is now a permanent fixture in my constituency.  Ivan Corea is a teacher at the Frances Bardsley Academy For Girls. When he joined the school in 2009, he set about creating awareness of autism, not only in the school, but across the whole of our local community in Havering.

In January this year, that culminated in a very special event in Havering town hall, when the mayor of Havering, Councillor Brian Eagling, and the leader of Havering Council, Councillor Roger Ramsey, presented a civic award to the Frances Bardsley Academy For Girls autism and disabilities club and to the school’s autism ambassadors, many of whom are here today watching our proceedings, for reaching out to the most vulnerable sections of society in our local community.

The club has been working in partnership with local autism campaigners Ade and Ronke Ogunleye, who run the RIEES Autism Club based at the Romford Baptist church. That work has received praise from the leader of the council, Councillor Roger Ramsey, who stated:

“To my memory, there has never been such a successful relationship between a secondary school and a local charity regarding autism in this borough and the FBA”—

Frances Bardsley Academy—

“Ambassador Programme has been of supreme service to the community. Through volunteering in the community, members have helped support those with autism, as well as their parents and carers, who are often just as much in need of support.”

The Frances Bardsley autism and disabilities club has been working closely with the Step Up To Serve charity, whose patron is His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Charlotte Hill, the chief executive officer of the charity, which is running the #iwill campaign, said:

“We are delighted that the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls Autism & Disabilities Club has pledged to support our work, and shared their progress during #iwill week to inspire others to take part also. If we are to make involvement in social action the norm for 10-20 year-olds we need partners to commit to tangible actions just as they are doing. The involvement of the FBA Autism Ambassadors of the Autism & Disabilities Club will undoubtedly help us progress towards our goal.”

I must pay tribute to the school’s headteacher, Julian Dutnall, who was recently presented with a special award by RIEES for showing outstanding leadership in promoting charitable giving at the school. Frances Bardsley has a thriving charity committee raising funds for a number of local, national and international charities, and Julian Dutnall has talked about the need for students to give back to the community and the need to show compassionate leadership to the most vulnerable sections of our society.

The chair of governors of Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls is the Rev. Father Roderick Hingley, who also serves as priest of the church of St. Alban Protomartyr in Romford. He has been hugely supportive of Autism Sunday. When Ivan Corea approached Father Hingley with regard to establishing the first ever Havering Autism Sunday service at St.Alban’s church in 2010, he saw the need to reach out to parents, carers and the autism community, and agreed to host the annual service. I have witnessed at first hand the moving partnership between the Frances Bardsley autism ambassadors from the sixth form and young people with autism—surely a model of how a school can make an impact in this area.

All this work has certainly helped to act as a catalyst for change in the London borough of Havering. Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls is fully behind Autism Sunday 2016. Indeed, class 7E created school history by organising the first ever year 7 assembly on Autism Sunday, finishing with a flourish as they sang the Nimal Mendis song for autism, “Open Every Door”. In so doing, they have raised much more awareness of the condition with their peers. I would also like to mention the assistant headteacher, Julie Payne, who has led school assemblies on the importance of Autism Sunday, and music teacher Amy Johnson and the Frances Bardsley chamber choir, who always perform on Autism Sunday and will do so this year,.

As the MP for Romford, I am immensely proud of what has been achieved so far, but there is still a long way to go before all adults with autism start receiving the care and support they need. For example, in a recent National Autistic Society survey, 70% of adults with autism said that they are not receiving the help they need from social services. Furthermore, only 23% of those who did have contact with social workers felt that they had a good understanding of the condition and its effects. This must change. The Government’s current review of the implementation of the strategy is a unique opportunity to urge local authorities and Ministers to ensure that they live up to their commitments.

Times are challenging, but that must not be used as an excuse for failing to meet obligations to adults with autism and their families. With the right support, many adults with autism can work for and participate in their communities. Difficulties in communication and social interaction might mean that someone with autism finds it hard to find and keep a steady job. They might find it challenging to prepare a CV, or find that they need support in preparing for an interview. Moreover, once they have a job, they might find it difficult to work with people who do not understand the complexities of their condition.

A number of barriers to successful implementation of the autism strategy have been identified. The good news is that there will be simple yet effective solutions to these challenges. For example, an innovation fund would support local authorities to improve the services currently available to adults with autism and help them to develop an understanding of the best way to deliver services and highlight areas of best practice. An autism awareness scheme would also allow volunteers and community groups to tap into resources that would help them to develop a programme of autism awareness and training in their local areas. That can be achieved in the simplest of ways, through things such as adaptations to public buildings and local businesses, autism awareness training for front-line staff in public services and more autism-friendly activities.

I conclude by urging the Minister to consider my proposals. In so doing, I commend to the House the work of the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls autism and disabilities club and the important concept of Autism Sunday, which is a beacon of light and compassionate leadership in action in my constituency, reaching out to those who need that support most of all.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on obtaining the debate. As chair of the all-party group on autism, I am privileged to have an insight into this area. I am glad to see my predecessor as chair of the all-party group, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), who has done so much work on autism, on the Front Bench next to the Minister.

I congratulate Ivan Corea and the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls, because initiatives such as theirs really help to demystify autism. It is important that we hear from the Minister how we can mark Autism Sunday and Autism Awareness Week in Parliament. I am proud of the fact that when we hold APPG events, we try to make admission to Parliament autism-friendly. We put aside a silent space where people can feel calm, and we have made the Serjeant at Arms and all who usher people into this place aware of the little things that can make life much more comfortable for people with autism.

Too many families and individuals still experience judgmental attitudes or face isolation or unemployment, because of the misunderstandings that surround autism. Although 99% of the public say that they are aware of autism, an astonishing 87% of people who are affected by autism do not think that the public have a good enough understanding of it, and more needs to be done to deepen that understanding. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford has done a great deal tonight, and so have his constituents, who may be listening to the debate. May they go from strength to strength, and may they bring about more awareness of autism with their wonderful work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this important debate. He has afforded the House the opportunity to raise awareness of autism and mark Autism Sunday in Parliament, albeit on a Wednesday. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, Autism Sunday is an event with worldwide recognition, as well as being a permanent fixture in his own constituency. That is a fantastic achievement, of which Ivan and Charika Corea, who have grown the event since 2002, should be proud.

I commend Ivan Corea for his promotion of autism awareness in Romford through his work at the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls, his role in creating FBA autism ambassadors and the #Iwill campaign, which I know well. Such local partnership working is vital if we are to change the lives of people with autism, to ensure that they achieve and lead fulfilling, happy lives. It was uplifting to hear about the incredible impact that Corea’s vision has had in and around Romford, and I am sure that it reverberates much further.

As we have heard, autism is a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates and relates to people around them. As a result, people right across society, from school teachers and bus drivers to general practitioners, need to be aware of autism and what it means for those who live with it.

I will start by outlining the framework that is in place to improve the lives of people with autism. Since the Autism Act 2009, which was spearheaded by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)—I thank her for reminding us that world Autism Awareness Week is from 2 to 8 April—the 2010 cross-Government autism strategy was updated by the “Think Autism” strategy in 2014 and new statutory guidance in 2015. The aim of all of this work was further to improve the care and support that local authorities and NHS organisations provide for people with autism.

“Think Autism” placed greater emphasis on involvement and awareness within the local community and on ways of looking differently at support and engagement. That is very much what is happening in Romford, as we have heard. It moved the original vision of the strategy on, including to an increased focus on areas such as young people, criminal justice and employment.

The reason we have kept up the momentum is that there is more to do to ensure that all those with autism get the help and support that they need. Last month, we published a progress report, which is designed to challenge local partners delivering a wide range of services, such as health, education, children’s services, adult services and transport to “Think Autism”. With over 500,000 people in England estimated to have autism, this was done for a very good reason: because it matters.

These organisations and services come into contact with people on the autistic spectrum daily. By engaging with them effectively, we can ensure that such people do not miss out on accessing services and support. By doing so, we can bring about a positive influence on their mental and physical health. That is why it is so important that the Department of Health is continuing to make autism a top priority for the NHS. The NHS mandate sets the priorities for the NHS, and signals what the Department of Health will hold the NHS accountable for. Next year, it will include an important call on the NHS to reduce health inequality for autistic people.

In launching “Think Autism”, we wanted to promote innovation and awareness, and we made available over £4 million to do just that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford rightly argued strongly for a further drive on innovation in how we deliver services for people with autism. Until last year, the Department of Health ran an innovation fund of £1 million to promote innovative local ideas, services or projects that could help people in their communities. Forty-two projects were chosen, with a focus on people with autism who do not qualify for social care support. The projects focused on four key areas: advice and mentoring, gaining and growing skills for independence, early intervention and crisis prevention, and support into employment.

Some £3 million has been given out in capital funding to councils, so that they can make public spaces, such as inquiry offices and libraries, more autism-friendly, and provide IT and technology to make life easier for people with autism. For example, in the London Borough of Havering in my hon. Friend’s constituency, funding was allocated to improve autism-friendly safe spaces, allowing people with autism greater access to Romford town centre. I know that that is an opportunity that he would not want anybody to miss.

As a Minister in the Department for Education, I have a particular focus on the education of children and young people with autism. A key part of that are our recent fundamental reforms to the new nought-to-25, family-centred, outcomes-focused special educational needs and disability system. We have made changes to the law to ensure we provide the support that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities require. The work I have seen so far, which is putting families at the heart of the process, is in many ways inspiring, but we know that we still need to do more to engender the culture shift necessary to achieve that end. I am pleased that we were recently able to announce an additional £80 million to boost support for children with special educational needs and disabilities during the next financial year to help to ensure that our reforms have real impact on the ground, including for children and young people with autism.

We are doing specific work to help to support children and young people with autism. First, we want to ensure that all education staff are able to recognise and support children with autism in schools. We have therefore funded the Autism Education Trust from 2011 to 2016 to provide training for early years, school and further education staff. To date, the AET has provided training for about 87,000 education staff. I know that the trust is aiming to reach the milestone of 100,000 trained staff this summer. I hope that I will be able to celebrate that achievement with it.

Secondly, we know that young people with autism can find dealing with change particularly hard, so it is important that they make a successful transition from school to post-16 provision. We have therefore funded the Ambitious about Autism charity from 2013 to this year to develop an innovative, integrated model of transition support. That model enables more young people with complex autism and learning difficulties to access further education and training beyond school, helping them more successfully to move on to adult life and work.

We know that a disproportionate number of children with autism are excluded from school. As a result, we have funded the National Autistic Society to provide families with information and advice on exclusion and alternative provision, and to support education professionals with advice and guidance on early intervention to reduce the risk of exclusion.

Finally in relation to children and young people, the expansion of the Government’s free schools programme has benefited many children with special educational needs and, specifically, with autism. Several specialist autism free schools have opened, including Church Lawton School, which is near my constituency in Cheshire. There are 11 more free special schools in the pipeline, of which seven are specifically for children with autism. That demonstrates the demand and desire of parents and charities that we meet that need and offer a truly outstanding education for autistic children.

I applaud the initiative that has been taken by Sunderland football club, although they are not my team, to provide a small room in the stadium where autistic children can go with their parents and enjoy the football match, without the noise that disaffects them. That initiative clearly helps autistic children. Would the Minister encourage other premier league football teams and, indeed, all football teams to do likewise?

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. The Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People has worked hard with the premier league and football clubs to improve the facilities for and awareness of people with disabilities, whether they be physical, mental or otherwise, at football grounds. There is clearly more that can be done. Clubs such as Sunderland are taking the lead and showing what can be done. With a little bit of thought, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said, we can go a long way. I encourage every club to look at what Sunderland are doing and to make such easy but important adjustments, so that they can fill the seats in their stadium, which Sunderland has struggled to do this season.

In addition to what we are doing at the Department for Education, my colleagues right across Government are thinking autism. They are doing more to raise awareness of autism and to provide support across a range of Government services. The National Autistic Society is doing excellent work in this area. We wish to support other charities in their endeavours through the strong partnerships that are needed.

The Department of Health has funded Autism Alliance UK to undertake an awareness campaign that seeks to dispel the myths around autism, which still exist all too readily, as well as to improve training, create employment and make reasonable adjustments in how everyday services are provided for people with autism. The alliance is working with local and national businesses, and with providers of services in the private, public and voluntary sectors. In my hon. Friend’s county of Essex, the awareness work has involved another football club, Colchester United, who are having an indifferent season, the Essex County Council equality and diversity service, and councillors in Chelmsford, so it is really starting to reverberate around Essex.

Autism Alliance UK is also working to improve knowledge and awareness of autism in the Department for Work and Pensions by, for example, building an autism network across Jobcentre Plus by training nominated autism leads, including work coaches and dedicated employment advisers.

To build knowledge and expertise among health professionals, the Department of Health has provided financial support to the Royal College of General Practitioners’ clinical priorities programme on autism, which is undertaking practical work on autism awareness and training for GPs. Health Education England has developed the online MindED portal, which contains learning resources for enhancing the effectiveness of working with children, young people and young adults who are on the autistic spectrum.

Last year, the Department of Health also provided funding to a number of organisations, including the British Psychological Society, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the National Autistic Society to upgrade their autism e-learning training tools and materials. Those tools will assist GPs, social workers, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned, clinicians and nurses. The intention is to enable the training to have a direct impact on the quality and effectiveness of the services they provide. As a result of building staff capabilities on autism awareness, there will be better outcomes for people with autism and their families.

The Ministry of Justice must play its part, too. It is working to achieve better awareness of autism in the criminal justice system, for victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime. For example, my hon Friend the Minister for Prisons, Probation, Rehabilitation and Sentencing wrote to prisons last year to encourage them to apply for the National Autistic Society’s autism accreditation. Under the pilot, several prisons are currently in the process of working towards accreditation, and by October 2015 a further 20 prisons had expressed their interest.

Finally, Disability Matters is a Department of Health-funded e-learning tool to provide training in understanding and supporting the needs of people with a disability, and it will help those with autism, too.

As you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, from this short summary, there is a raft of activity going on to ensure that, across Government, we are “thinking autism” and raising awareness, alongside other events such as Autism Sunday. Our mission is to help people with autism to fulfil their potential, to have full, happy lives and to live as independently as possible. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romford in embracing Autism Sunday and the golden chance it gives us to raise these issues in Romford and beyond, and I look forward to working with him on this further as we continue to work to improve the lives of all those with autism in our society.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.