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National Autism and Education Strategy

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are planning to introduce a national autism and education strategy; and if so, what are those plans.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am a vice-president of the National Autistic Society.

My Lords, we welcomed the publication in November of the report Autism and education in England 2017. We are carefully considering the recommendations, including creating a national autism strategy. Some recommendations reflect existing policy, such as our funding of extensive autism awareness training for school staff, improving local accountability and providing additional funding. The report is informing our thinking about the next steps in achieving our vision for the SEND system that we will confirm later this year.

My Lords, that is a very welcome response because I think we all agree that every child has a right to a good education and to reach their full potential. The National Autistic Society supported the report of the all-party group, which was chaired by two Conservative Members of Parliament, who did fantastic work. The report said that three things are needed: teachers should have autism training, schools should know how to make reasonable adjustments for youngsters who are autistic, and councils should make provision for school places now and for the future. Given that optimistic hope and the Minister’s response, will he agree to meet with colleagues across the House so we can press it further with him?

My Lords, I am very happy to meet the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and other members of that committee so we can discuss the recommendations and try to include them in our future strategy.

My Lords, I have an interest in this via Motability and also because my little grandson is on the spectrum. I congratulate the Government because there is interest in and support for the subject on all sides of the House, including from Ministers. The National Autistic Society has done a marvellous job over the years. There has been a lot of research, there are a lot of statistics and more work is being done in different areas. We know the answers now—there is a huge amount of knowledge. We need the money now. Can the whole system be brought forward so we can get on and give these youngsters the chance they deserve?

My Lords, we have invested £373 million for local areas to implement SEND since 2014 and have just renewed a grant to the Autism Education Trust to help improve the training of education staff. It has trained some 150,000 staff since 2011-12. Awareness is very much rising in the education sector.

My Lords, the Minister talked about awareness. Awareness only goes so far. Have the Government identified how many specialist support teachers they need—people trained specifically to meet the needs of this group—and at what density? Without that, you can have all the awareness you need but not know how to implement it properly.

My Lords, the approach has very much been to include autistic children in mainstream education, and 72% of autistic children are. As I mentioned a moment ago, we are rolling out the training to staff to ensure that awareness of the condition is more widespread. That is certainly the intention. We have also invested substantially in the creation of special schools. Some 600 local authority maintained schools have a specialism for autistic children.

I welcome the fact that all teachers are going to be given autism awareness training when the new teacher training starts in September. Can this also include classroom assistants, who are often the first to see children who may have problems? They too need to have training to know how to deal with this.

My Lords, as I mentioned in an earlier reply, the great work that the Autism Education Trust is doing extends not just to teachers but to all those involved in schools. I reassure my noble friend that that is very much part of our strategy.

My Lords, the noble Lord will no doubt be aware that girls on the autism spectrum are often more adept than boys at concealing their difficulties and often go undiagnosed and untreated. What special arrangements are in place to improve the diagnosis of girls with autism?

I cannot reply specifically on the condition in girls, but I am aware that the highest proportion of education, health and care plans are for people on the autistic spectrum. There is comprehensive acceptance that the new EHC plan system is working. In 2015, we carried out a detailed survey and found that 75% of parents and users thought that the young person was getting the help they needed, but I accept that we need to continue learning and improving in this process.

My Lords, not in any way to underestimate the importance of education, but it seems to me that this extends quite a bit beyond that, and relates very much to the households of autistic children, not least when the autistic child is a boy and the other siblings are girls. I suggest that perhaps some attention be paid to the benefit of dogs in many of these households. I am sitting next to a dog now, who is wonderful at dealing with the difficulties my noble friend has, and I can see one sitting opposite me. I am aware of a number of families in which dogs have made a world of difference to the behaviour of these children in their homes. Although there are one or two small charities doing work in this direction, some expansion and co-ordination would be extremely helpful.

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s comments. I know of a vivid example in the academy trust I founded. We had a child on the autistic spectrum who was literally unable to speak to either pupils or staff in the school, although he was very bright. One of the teachers had the inspirational idea to bring a dog to the school. Within a month, that child was talking happily to the dog, and a few weeks beyond that was interacting with the children and teachers in the school. It might be useful to finish on the positive note that many people on the autistic spectrum go on to have remarkable lives, and I will give just a few examples: Hans Christian Andersen, Susan Boyle, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Michelangelo, Mozart and Isaac Newton. The whole spectrum of life can be enriched by people with this condition.