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National Strategy for Autistic Children, Young People and Adults 2021 to 2026

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

Today I am announcing the publication of “the national strategy for autistic children, young people and adults: 2021 to 2026”. The strategy is aimed at significantly improving the lives of autistic people in England.

This strategy builds on improvements made over the decade since the inception of the Autism Act in 2009. The Autism Act was enacted to tackle the multiple disadvantages that autistic people face. It is estimated that around 560,000 people in England are autistic and that autistic people die on average 16 years earlier than the general population. They experience poorer overall health outcomes and face substantial health inequalities in comparison to non-autistic people.

Since the Act’s introduction, there have been two strategies, which have resulted in improved availability of services for autistic people, including diagnostic services, and significantly improved public awareness of what autism is. I want to pay particular tribute to our late colleague my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan DBE MP, who was so instrumental in bringing forward this Act in 2009. She worked tirelessly to improve autistic people’s and their families’ access to services through her role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism (APPGA).

Today, I am delighted to announce the publication of the third iteration of the autism strategy, which sets out our vision for how we will make further progress on improving the lives of autistic people over the next five years. We have worked with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who is the Minister responsible for children and families, on this new strategy, which extends to children and young people for the first time. This is in recognition of the importance of supporting autistic people throughout their lives, from the early years of childhood and through adulthood.

We have also worked in partnership with other Government Departments to ensure the strategy addresses the wide range of issues that affect autistic people's whole lives.

The focus of this new strategy and the actions we are committing to have been informed by evidence including our national call for evidence undertaken in 2019, which received 2,745 responses from autistic people, their families and unpaid carers as well as organisations. We also involved self-advocates and family members in the development of the new strategy through our autism strategy executive group. In addition, the strategy was informed by the APPGA’s “The Autism Act, Ten Years On” report and independent research we commissioned about the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on autistic people, both of which involved autistic people and their families. I know the pandemic has created new challenges and exacerbated problems many autistic people already faced, including higher levels of loneliness and social isolation.

Today we also publish our response to the CQC’s “Out of sight - who cares?” report and our response to Baroness Hollins’ and the independent Oversight Panel’s recommendations regarding independent reviews for people with a learning disability and autistic people detained in long-term segregation.

The new autism strategy is supported by an implementation plan for 2021 to 2022, which sets out actions we will take forward in the first year of the strategy. We will publish further implementation plans for subsequent years of the strategy, in line with future spending review rounds. The strategy sets out our vision for what we want autistic people’s and their families’ lives to be like in 2026 across six priority areas, and the specific steps we, local government, the NHS and others will take to this end in this first year:

Improving understanding and acceptance of autism within society. To ensure that autistic people can take part in their communities without fear or judgment, just like everyone else, we are funding the development of and will test an autism public understanding initiative.

Improving autistic children’s and young people’s access to education, and supporting positive transitions into adulthood. To enable children and young people to access the right support, we are providing funding to train education staff in autism, and we are strengthening and promoting pathways to employment, such as supported internships, traineeships and apprenticeships.

Supporting more autistic people into employment. We will continue with our efforts to make Jobcentres more autism-inclusive, improve employer awareness, and promote better access to employment support programmes for autistic people.

Tackling health and care inequalities for autistic people. To tackle these inequalities, we are investing £13 million to begin reducing diagnosis waiting times for children and young people, as well as adults, in line with the NHS long-term plan and the mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan.

Building the right support in the community and supporting people in in-patient care. To make progress towards our targets of reducing the number of autistic people and people with a learning disability in in-patient mental health settings, we will take a number of actions. We are proposing to change the detention criteria in the Mental Health Act 1983 to prevent autistic people without a co-occurring mental health condition from being detained for treatment under section 3 of the Act. In addition, we are investing £40 million to improve community support, over £18 million to drive improvements in the quality of in-patient care, and providing £21 million as part of the community discharge grant to speed up discharges.

Improving support within the criminal and youth justice systems. To improve autistic people’s experience with the criminal and youth justice systems, we will develop a training toolkit for frontline staff on neurodiversity and the additional support people might need. We will also take a number of steps to improve staff awareness and understanding of autism and improve people’s access to adjustments.

Over the next five years, we will work together to create a society that truly understands and includes autistic people in all aspects of life, one in which autistic people of all ages, backgrounds and across the country have equal opportunities to play a full part in their communities and to have better access to the services they need throughout their lives.