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People with Autism: Public Building Access

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

Imagine what Parliament would be like if there was less information—less information at once, anyway. Imagine if we all agreed that there could only ever be one voice speaking in our debating Chambers and Committee Rooms. I will admit that I am not completely perfect in that regard, but just imagine what that would be like. Imagine if we redesigned the atrium of Portcullis House so that it was less of a goldfish bowl of sights and cacophony of sounds. Imagine if there were quiet areas where Members, staff and members of the public could retreat if there was simply too much going on and they needed to calm their minds.

I ask the hon. Lady to give way on a point of whimsy, really. If she wants to know what it would be like to have just one voice at a time in the Chamber, she should come to the Council of Europe, where we are obliged to speak for three minutes without interruption.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention makes me hopeful that we might one day achieve what I desire, even though it would require a lot of self-restraint on my part.

Imagine if we had routes through the parliamentary estate that steered people logically from one place to the next with predictable and straightforward signs, few distractions and gentle lighting.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. I noticed with interest at the launch of the autism and education report this afternoon that there was a designated quiet space. While I would not necessarily suggest that we always need that as MPs, what a great idea for any future public events that there is somewhere for people to go if they feel slightly overwhelmed by the number of people, the noises or the visual effects in the room. Does she agree?

Yes, I do agree; but I also slightly disagree, in that it might not hurt some of us as MPs to seek a place of quiet every now and then and still our minds, because there is so much going on for us.

If we did all that I just said, we would remove many barriers to people with autism using our public spaces. Would it not make a better place for all of us to run the country from? I argue that it would. Are these changes too much for us to contemplate? As hon. Members debate the restoration and renewal—hereafter referred to as R and R—of the parliamentary estate right now in the Chamber, would it be so difficult for us to consider taking the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that R and R presents to make Parliament a place of greater sensory clarity, reducing the sensory overload not just for people with autism but for everyone?

Are these changes too much for custodians of other public buildings to contemplate? I argue that they are not too much, and would benefit us all. They would benefit people with autism as users of public buildings and as employees and potential employees; but they would benefit everyone else, and there are so many other organisations doing so that we no longer have any justification for not doing so in our public buildings.

Fifteen years ago, several children with autism came into my life. Friends and family had young children on the autistic spectrum and my now husband, then partner, Kevin, started working with children with autism, as he still does, in a school that he runs. I am grateful to my friends, family, husband, his colleagues, particularly Paulla Keen, and my own staff member who takes a lead on autism in my team, Councillor Mike Davies, for what they have taught me about autism and about how bringing down barriers for people with autism can help us all. Like 99.5% of the public as surveyed by YouGov in 2016, I had heard of autism before; but in those 15 years my life has been immeasurably enriched by people with autism.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking organisations such as Sainsbury’s, which is now operating an autism-friendly hour? That takes place about once a month, and is designed to educate staff and shoppers so that if a child is having a difficult moment it is not necessarily a naughty child having a tantrum, but it may have become overwhelmed by noises and things going on in the store. I have done a pro forma letter that can be sent out to attractions in my constituency, so perhaps we can encourage other organisations to do the same.

I happily agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, other supermarkets are available, but I encourage those supermarkets to do likewise and believe that some of them are. Indeed, I will go on to talk a bit more about how we can encourage other organisations to do that.

Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), is it not important to note that this is not just about children? It is also about adults with autism and providing the kind of atmosphere and location that they can benefit from.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about children; it is about adults. I want to reiterate what I was saying: my life has been immeasurably enriched by children and adults on the autistic spectrum who have insights and illuminating ways of looking at the world that I have personally benefited from and would hate to feel were being denied to our public life.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. I, too, have seen local businesses, such as intu Trafford Centre in my constituency, make tremendous efforts to train their staff and alter some of their business practices to welcome people with autism and to make the centre a safe space for shopping and leisure. They have found that it is not just people with autism, but people with dementia, learning difficulties or other sensory impairments, who have benefited as a result. Does she agree that what is good for autistic people may in fact be good for all of us?

I absolutely agree. Indeed, that is the top and bottom of my speech: what is good for people on the spectrum is good for us all. Private businesses and shopping centres have sometimes led the way, and public buildings need to follow suit because doing so would benefit us all.

I am sad to learn from the National Autistic Society report “Too Much Information”, which was also published in 2016, that only 16% of people with autism and their families think that the public understands autism in any meaningful way. The consequence of people’s lack of meaningful understanding is that autistic people and their families are often effectively excluded from many public spaces. Half of autistic people and their families told the NAS in that survey that they sometimes do not go out because they are worried about the public’s reaction to their autism. Some 28% have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism, and 79% of autistic people reported feeling isolated. It does not have to be this way. I reiterate, along with my hon. Friends, that it is not good for anybody—people on the spectrum or the rest of us—for autistic people to feel excluded.

Although I am far from being an expert, I am going to share some of what I have learned about autism and making institutions accessible. First, I have a very technical definition, so bear with me. The “International Classification of Diseases”, 10th edition—ICD-10—is the most commonly used diagnostic manual in the UK. It defines autism profiles as:

“A group of disorders characterized by qualitative abnormalities in reciprocal social interactions and in patterns of communication, and by a restricted, stereotyped, repetitive repertoire of interests and activities. These qualitative abnormalities are a pervasive feature of the individual's functioning in all situations.”

I apologise to colleagues for using a technical definition, but over the past few months and years I have felt that sometimes people think they know what autism is but may confuse it with a mental health problem or a learning difficulty. Although some people with autism do have one or other or both, those are not defining characteristics. A revised edition of the ICD is expected this year and is likely to align closely with the latest edition of the American diagnostic and statistical manual. I refer colleagues to that definition for further information, but it includes sensory difficulties and has clearer criteria.

When my cousin Sunitha, who lives in Chennai, India, found out that her young son Ricky was on the autistic spectrum, it was not a surprise. She had known that something was not right. Ricky was not speaking at age three, and there were other things that meant she knew that he understood social interaction in a different way from other people. It was a difficult adjustment at first, but I am proud of how my cousin Suni and her family—her beautiful daughter Rachael and everyone else in it—have changed how they interact with one another and with Ricky, and how they support Ricky’s interaction with the world. Their experiences in India illustrate much of what needs to and can change in public buildings in the UK and beyond.

As with many, but not all, people on the autistic spectrum, Ricky does not speak much, although he is no longer non-verbal. He has outstanding skills in listening, reading and writing in several Indian languages, but his lack of fluent speech—and that of many autistic people—could come across as stand-offish. It might make it harder for him to get information about how to use a public building. Although some of his skills are far beyond most of us, they are not typical. Making a public building accessible needs to include giving clear information visually and logically as well as a non-verbal means of gaining that information.

Again, as with many but not all people on the spectrum, Ricky likes routines and sometimes has trouble adjusting to change. Some people may ask, “Does that make me a little bit autistic? I like routines and I don’t like change.” The National Autistic Society mentions the myth that “we’re all a bit autistic” on its website, but that is a myth about autism that I am keen to scotch—no, we are not. My routines help me to organise my day. Ricky’s help to prevent him from experiencing sensory overload and to soothe him when he does.

Ricky wants to take the same route to school each day, which is fairly straightforward, but when he goes on holiday—as he does when my mum, my husband and I visit India—some experiences can be tricky for him, such as a very noisy and chaotic queue for a zoo, which we quickly left. That is an example of something we did to accommodate Ricky but which benefited us too—I did not like the queue either.

We have been able to enjoy holidays mostly because his amazing mum and the rest of the family are brilliant at facilitating what Ricky needs to be comfortable, including certain books, access to certain things on his mum’s phone and certain foods. We are all pretty much in agreement about avoiding noisy, chaotic experiences that would cause him sensory overload. We have all realised that we like spending gentle time together doing familiar things. It works for me, and it means that Suni and the family can have a holiday.

We have built up to several days’ holiday each year because we have found certain places, such as the Green Hotel in Mysore, where Ricky knows what to expect and where the staff show great understanding, without any special training, by being thoughtful and by responding to specific requests from one of us, which can help.

Although visiting a public building for the first time could be a new and upsetting experience, an organisation can help. It can provide information in advance on a website, or on arrival in a leaflet, with matching, visually clear and logical information in the building. Even without training or an explanation of autism—I do not think the staff at the Green Hotel know what Ricky’s condition is—staff can be encouraged to accept different ways of communicating, and see them as a bonus to us all rather than a limitation.

When Ricky is experiencing sensory overload, he will sometimes use repetitive movements, sounds or actions to try to bring some order and method to a stressful situation. That could be profoundly misunderstood and seen as weird, disruptive or even aggressive. The response of staff to that behaviour in autistic people may make being in a public building unwelcoming. Indeed, in the 2016 National Autistic Society survey, 28% of autistic people and their families said that they have been asked to leave a public space, which upsets me terribly.

Some people with autism have different ways of understanding non-verbal social communication from neurotypical people. They may be very literal in their interpretation of what someone says and jokes and sarcasm may not work, or may work in a different way. Again, that may be seen as weird, irritating or difficult and our responses might make a public building unwelcoming.

If people in public buildings are given clear information about autism—how it might present and what might contribute to that sensory overload—they can learn to adjust their responses to people who behave in ways they do not expect, without necessarily knowing that that person is on the autistic spectrum. Some people’s autism will not be noticeable, and other people may have no idea what is going on, but that does not mean that they are coping with an over-stimulating environment, sensory overload, disruption or noise.

Autism is a difference, not a disease. Understanding that difference helps people who work in public buildings to make adjustments or to change how they present the building so that even if they do not know that someone is autistic, the building and organisation are more accessible.

I have chosen to focus on public buildings because we should all have access to them as users and as potential employees. The ability of people with autism to do great work and to flourish could be even better if buildings were more accessible to them. My relationships with people with autism are a privilege. Their different interpretations of the world around us are insightful and illuminating. Making public buildings more accessible would bring those insights into public life to the benefit of us all.

Since launching the autism-friendly award in 2016, the National Autistic Society has supported over 40 public and private venues to become autism-friendly. Each organisation took steps to improve staff understanding, introduced pre-visit information, adapted its premises, consulted with autistic people and their families, and encouraged wider public awareness of autism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned.

With help from the NAS, over 1,000 sites will be autism-friendly in 2019. That is fantastic and it would be great for us to be one of them. The parliamentary estate already has part of the autism award, but I would like us to go further. The NAS works with a large banking group that has more than 800 sites, so clearly there are businesses that understand the benefits of making their buildings autism-friendly to their excellent employees, potential employees, and customers who are on the spectrum. It benefits business and it benefits public space.

Public buildings and the organisations in them have no reason not to do the same. Local authorities should take a lead—hence bringing the debate to the Department’s attention—but schools, health services, the police and other public bodies should make the most of what the NAS and other autism organisations can provide.

In my own constituency, the NAS and the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service helped me to provide a more autism-accessible service and worked with me to hold what we believe was the country’s first autism-specific constituency surgery. I strongly encourage other hon. Members to do the same. We can and should lead by example in this place. In summer 2017, the Houses of Parliament received the National Autistic Society’s autism-friendly award, joining the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and Stormont, but as I walk around I can see plenty more to do.

Restoration and renewal is an opportunity. Under the Equality Act 2010, businesses and public spaces are not allowed to discriminate against an autistic person because of their disability. I am sure that staff here and in restaurants and council buildings alike would not dream of telling someone, “You’re autistic. You must leave”, but a lack of understanding could mean that they react unhelpfully to what seems like odd behaviour. That could lead to a situation that causes them to ask the autistic person to leave, in effect, because of their autism. My experience with Ricky at the Green Hotel in Mysore shows that staff in public spaces do not need to discriminate in that way, however unintentionally.

Businesses and public bodies have an anticipatory duty under the Act to make reasonable adjustments, which means thinking in advance. In October 2017, over 5,000 restaurants, shopping centres and other venues across the UK took part in autism hour, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) has mentioned. For 60 minutes, they took simple steps to make their premises autism-friendly by dimming lights, reducing noise and carrying out autism-awareness activities.

The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. I like the stress that she puts on the information available for people with autism. Does she have any thoughts about whether building regulations for new buildings need to be changed to make them more autism-friendly? How might we physically adapt older buildings to accommodate people with autism?

I would love building regulations to be altered to take into account what needs to happen to make buildings not only autism-friendly, but friendly to people with dementia and learning disabilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has said. I hope the Minister will address that important point in her remarks.

In my constituency, local voluntary parents’ group SEND a Welcome, which provides mutual support and public-awareness raising for families with children with special needs, including but not confined to autism, has encouraged many local businesses, such as the Boston Tea Party on Gloucester Road, to do similar things. That means that their families can use local shops and businesses, and it is also good for us all.

That work is so promising and so welcome, but all public buildings should have more than an autism hour. We should have autism days, months and years. In fact, we should simply be accessible to the one in 100 people on the autistic spectrum. Everyone present seems to agree that that is in everyone’s interest. What is good for people with autism is good for us all. The findings of the NAS’s “Too Much Information” research suggest that adjustments are not happening as consistently as they should be. The NAS can help, but it needs to be supported by the Government. I hope the Minister will address that.

Before I draw to a close, I have some questions for the Minister. I am grateful for the commitment that I believe she has to doing better to ensure that autistic people have the right to public spaces. My constituent, “H”, is a young woman at a local mainstream state school. She is on the autistic spectrum and has been in touch with me this week and on several previous occasions about the need for greater understanding of autism. When I contacted her about this debate, she said:

“I would like to ask the Minister whether there will be a campaign to raise autism awareness in schools. I ask this because I recently went on a trip, and became distressed with the noise levels from my fellow students on the coach.”

I know how she feels—I sometimes find that myself—but this is a real problem for students with autism. She adds:

“To prevent this happening again, I would suggest a short course for students in which to learn about the signs and symptoms of autism, and how to help someone in distress due to them.”

I add to H’s question a few others. First, what support will the Minister give to local authorities to ensure that their staff can benefit from training to help them to make the physical space, atmosphere, staffing and—as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned—structure of public buildings such that people with autism and their families can use them comfortably?

Secondly, given the high level of social isolation experienced by autistic people, will the Government ensure that their new strategy to tackle loneliness includes a specific focus on making public spaces accessible to people with autism and their families? Thirdly, how else will the Minister encourage more businesses and all public spaces to become autism-friendly? I recognise that business is outside her Department, but good examples can have a knock-on effect.

Fourthly, what steps will she take to ensure that the renovated Parliament meets the access needs of autistic people and their families? I strongly encourage her to consider that issue and discuss it with her colleagues in other Departments. Finally, what steps will she take to ensure that managers of public buildings and organisations are aware of their Equality Act duties in relation to autistic people? I refer to schools, health centres and police stations as well as council buildings. It would be fantastic if she talked to her colleagues about that.

I began my speech by suggesting changes and asking whether they were too much for the custodians of public buildings to contemplate. They are not—and the time to contemplate them is now. Yesterday, we had a very constructive debate in this Chamber on the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). Today, the all-party group on autism launched its report on autism and education, based on an inquiry chaired by the hon. Members for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I am grateful to them for their work and to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for her leadership of the all- party group. I also praise Mr Speaker for his personal commitment to the issue, which shows great leadership in the place. Many right hon. and hon. Members have demonstrated great commitment to autism awareness.

One in 100 people and their families deserve these changes as a matter of right, so that they can have their equal right to use public space respected. My cousin Sunitha and her family, my husband and his colleagues, the NAS, Bristol Autism Support, the SEND a Welcome parents group in Bishopston, the shopping centres mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Dewsbury, my assistant Mike—there are so many examples. They and so many others have shown me what can be done in publicly owned buildings, and not out of pity or because being autistic is inherently a struggle.

I really urge colleagues not to refer to autism as a struggle, because being autistic means seeing the world and relationships in it in a different way. It is not a disease. Many people on the autistic spectrum value their identity as neurodiverse. We neurotypical people too often unnecessarily make things a struggle for autistic people; we create barriers where none are needed.

Autistic people are not making special pleading or asking us to feel sorry for them. They are asking for equal rights. They have a right to use public space, and it is time we made that right a reality.

I understand that two Back Benchers wish to speak. To allow time for the winding-up speeches, I ask them to speak for no more than seven minutes each.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate.

Everyone should have the right to easy access to public buildings, and the roughly one in 100 people in the United Kingdom who are on the autistic spectrum are no exception. Although, of course, there is more that can be done, we have made great strides in making public buildings more accessible to people with visible disabilities—take the advances that have been made on wheelchair access. However, it is important that we also make public buildings more accessible to people with invisible disabilities, such as autism. Easier access to public buildings makes it easier to go about one’s daily life and access public services.

People with autism should not have their access compromised because basic, common-sense adjustments have not been made to certain buildings. Accessibility is as much an issue for them as it is for people with more visible disabilities. According to the National Autistic Society, 79% of autistic people and 70% of their families feel socially isolated. It is crucial that public buildings are organised in a way that makes autistic people and their families feel comfortable going to them.

There are a number of simple adjustments that can be made to buildings to make them more accessible to people with autism, such as removing overly bright colours, loud noises and clutter; ensuring that signage is clear and explicit; and making the layout of the building more predictable. It does not take much to make some relatively small adjustments that can really help people with autism and their families.

Likewise, it is important to promote autism awareness among staff. Half of autistic people and their families sometimes do not go out because of concern about people’s reactions to autism. The more we educate staff in public buildings—and the public in general—about autism, the more accessible public spaces will be for people with autism and their families. Encouraging understanding is just as important as making physical adjustments.

It is important that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local authorities all work together to make public buildings more autism-friendly and more accessible to people with both visible and invisible disabilities. The UK Government have a good record of encouraging the public sector to be more autism-friendly, and I very much hope that they continue and redouble their efforts in the near future.

We should aim to be an accessible and inclusive society in which access to public spaces is as easy as possible for people with autism and their families, and for people with various disabilities. That will involve building on the progress we have made, which will require impetus from all levels of government. It will require physical adjustments and awareness raising. It is an area in which, for relatively little, we can make a big, tangible, positive difference to the lives of an awful lot of people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on bringing the issue of autism to Westminster Hall so honestly, compassionately and clearly. No one who listened to her speech could fail to be encouraged and energised by it.

If I may, I would like to offer a Northern Ireland perspective. The hon. Lady referred to what is happening in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and I would like to give some introductory information about autism in Northern Ireland, as well as about some other matters. Statistical analysis has been carried out on the rate of autism in children in Northern Ireland, and its findings are concerning, to say the least. They suggest that the estimated prevalence of autism in the school-age population in Northern Ireland has increased from 1.2% to 2.5% in less than a decade. There is a significant difference in the estimated prevalence rates of autism between the genders: males are four times more likely to be identified with autism than females, in line with UK-wide and international figures.

The Northern Ireland urban population has a statistically significant higher prevalence rate than the rural population, and we need to try to understand why that is so. Worryingly, using the Northern Ireland multiple deprivation measure ranking, the rate of autism from 2008-09 to 2013-14 was higher in the least deprived decile than in the most deprived. However, by 2016-17, the rate of autism in the most deprived area was 47% higher than in the least deprived area and 42% higher than the Northern Ireland average. Those figures illustrate the problems with autism.

In Northern Ireland, we have had a report by Autism NI and we have done some other work; I say “we”, but the work was done by the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which I served before coming here. Autism NI is a very active group in the Northern Ireland Assembly and it has come forward with some great strategies, visions and ideas for the future. Some of the things that it has put forward—back in my time at the Northern Ireland Assembly and since then—have been very significant.

My introduction to autism has been through interaction with people as a constituency MP, as a Northern Ireland Assembly Member and as a local councillor. I have filled in forms for parents to claim disability living allowance for their children, and I have dealt with other benefit issues, as well as referrals for educational assessment so that schools can get the classroom assistants that they need. Those are the real things that affect people, and engaging with them is how we learn about autism.

An interesting point was made in a separate debate this morning. We come to these debates to add our bit of knowledge, but also to gain knowledge from others. It is good that we will be able to leave this debate with knowledge from Scotland, from the hon. Member for Bristol West, from the shadow Minister, from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and, indeed, from the Minister.

The estimated prevalence of autism has increased across all school years. In 2009-10, 74% of children identified as having autism were classified at stage 5 of the special educational needs assessment. I have been directly involved with that assessment, so I understand the issues clearly. However, in 2016-17 the percentage of children identified as having autism and classified at stage 5 of the assessment had fallen to 63%. There was a slight improvement in that time, which is probably down to the autism NI strategy. That strategy has addressed some autism issues, although it will take a while to work out all the figures.

Autism is a massive factor for children and young people in Northern Ireland, but it is not a death sentence by any stretch of the imagination. What is required is to teach communities about tools for people with autism. I loved it when the hon. Member for Bristol West made a comment about a wee boy or girl having autism. As she said, people with autism are the same as the rest of us; they just have a different way of doing things, and it is important that we understand that. As I say, I loved that little comment, because my mind was working in a very similar way. I think that those who deal regularly with people with autism would know what I mean.

One tool that I have come across is the Autism Friendly award, which is provided by the National Autistic Society and helps to teach communities about autism. The award helps businesses to become educated and aware of what they can do to help themselves and the families who use their services. It might be a simple thing, but it can really make a difference, and that is what we want.

According to the National Autistic Society, 79% of autistic people and 70% of families with autistic children feel socially isolated. I have often been involved in cases with a single parent—often a lady—with an autistic child and a couple of other children. The children are all pressing upon her. I see such women in my office and I understand how they can feel socially isolated, because their whole life is focused on looking after their children and doing their best for them.

Half of autistic people and their families sometimes do not go out because of concern about people’s reaction to autism, which goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Bristol West made earlier. We have to be more understanding and not stare, as children sometimes do; sometimes adults stare, too. We need to be aware of these things.

The NAS website states that:

“Even though more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic, many of them and their families still struggle to access essential community spaces, businesses and shops”,

so the Autism Friendly award for business is good. The NAS website continues:

“The National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award champions premises who commit to making sure that autistic visitors receive the same warm welcome as everybody else.

This doesn’t mean investing in expensive alterations or training your staff to be autism experts. Small changes can make a massive difference to autistic visitors and just a little understanding can go a long way.

We have worked with everyone from airports, heritage sites to sports arenas, local hairdressers and high street stores. Every customer-facing organisation, whatever their size or business, can benefit from becoming autism-friendly.”

That is what the NAS wants to achieve, and we in this House should want to achieve it, too.

I am conscious of your instruction about time, Mr Betts, so I will come to a close. Each venue that achieves the Autism Friendly award will help to make the UK a more autism-friendly place by opening its doors to autistic people and their families, whose lives are affected daily by businesses that do not understand their needs. I fully support initiatives such as the Autism Friendly award. They help to raise awareness and make a positive difference to families with autism, who simply need a little compassion, a little more understanding and—I say this gently—a little more support from the Government. I believe that, as a matter of principle, every single Government-funded building must be autism-aware and autism-friendly.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate, and I wish her well in her new position. I should have done that at the very beginning of my speech, and I apologise for not doing so. She and I came into the House at the same time. I know that she is a lady of compassion, so we look forward to a compassionate response.

It is a pleasure, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairship.

I am grateful to have been able to contribute this week to not one, but two debates on autism. It is great that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was able to secure a debate on this important subject, and it is right that this House considers it.

Our understanding of autism has obviously changed greatly over the years and everyone can be grateful that there is now more information and awareness about autism than ever before. So far, there have been contributions from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), who mentioned the example of Sainsbury’s, which, in encouraging other businesses to contribute, is very much valued; from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), on how raising awareness can benefit everyone, which should be heard in this House; and from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who, as always, provided a valuable contribution and insight from Northern Ireland.

In the limited time that I have, I will take the opportunity to highlight two factors that are, of course, relevant to my constituency. First, there is the Autism Resource Coordination Hub—ARCH—in Hamilton, which supports individuals suffering from autism and their carers. Often, ARCH identifies local campaigns where it can provide advice and guidance on how to improve buildings and their surrounding areas, in order to improve the experience of those with autism as they live their daily lives, and also to encourage public buildings and spaces to improve their environment so that people can use them freely and accessibly.

Secondly, I will raise the concerns of one of my constituents, Julia Fordyce. Her son, Macoist, has worked with various services over the years. He has finished school and is now a young adult attempting to enter the workplace. However, his experience of entering a Department for Work and Pensions building on various occasions has been less successful than would be expected. I will use not my own words, but those of his mother and main carer, Julia, to tell the Minister about how they were made to feel in a DWP building. I hope that doing so will help to improve the services of all Departments in working with those who have autism.

Julia has said:

“We were greeted by 2 advisers who were sat behind a glass panel, Macoist found the glass panel very unnerving.”

She said that it was clear that the advisers had not read about Macoist’s disabilities and had no understanding of his claim. She continues:

“Our second appointment with his work coach was even more challenging.”

She says that the work coach insisted on moving rooms to recommence part of his assessment, which made Macoist extremely agitated and made the experience far more difficult than it needed to be.

Julia goes on to say that on another occasion her son

“had an on-going sick certificate which made no difference at all”.

She says the work coach insisted on taking Macoist through the entire process once more, as if he had never read the documents. The work coach then summarised matters and Macoist agreed to a work commitment of two hours a week. However, she says:

“For Macoist any kind of change has a dramatic affect on him mentally”—

that is, on his mental health. She goes on to say that for Macoist, travelling to new places and having new experiences can be stressful enough, but the experience in the DWP building could have been improved. It would have been improved simply if, for example, DWP staff had come to their home beforehand, explained what he might encounter at the Jobcentre and talked him through it.

I understand that it is not always possible for a DWP officer to do that, but I wonder whether that could be considered as part of guidance, or as an example of best practice, to take back to the DWP. Such experiences are very different for every individual, but for those who suffer from autism, they are not great. Macoist was ill-prepared for the changes to the environment that he experienced. That made the experience of working with the DWP less than successful and less enjoyable than it could perhaps have been.

Macoist is ready to engage. He wants to work and is keen to be part of the active workforce. If the Department for Work and Pensions can simply alter its policies and procedures, that would be beneficial. His mum, Julia, said:

“I know as his parent and carer I have found the whole experience extremely stressful and dread the next step of having Macoist assessed because I have very little faith that his disabilities or needs will be recognised and fully expect I will have another challenge on my hands.”

I wanted to take this opportunity to give a voice to my constituent. The accessibility of public buildings should not be exclusive to the likes of large chain supermarkets or cinemas; it should also be part of our Government Departments. They should ensure that they provide the best possible service, and that they factor awareness and experience into their own environments. Those who have autism and their carers face the essential challenges of everyday life. We can improve our own service delivery and our Departments’ awareness and guidance. I strongly encourage the UK Government to follow the example of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and develop an autism strategy to improve individuals’ life experiences.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this debate and on her passionate and inspiring contribution. I agree that quiet spaces and logical ways through the parliamentary estate would benefit us all.

We all aim for an inclusive society, and public places should be for all the public. It is great that 1,000 spaces are now autism-friendly, but that raises the question of how many are not. We have heard some worrying statistics. Some 79% of people with autism and their families feel socially isolated. Last week, I went to a Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reception at No. 10, where there were many comments about social isolation and loneliness. People mentioned old people and young mums, but there was no mention of autism. I encourage the Government to add people with autism and their families to the strategy and to build them into it.

As we have heard from many Members, these changes can help other people, too. I often think about my mum who, as she got older, did not like going into crowded places with music because she could not hear the conversation over it. Simple adjustments will help many people.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned many things from Northern Ireland. We can learn from across the UK, because there are people with autism in every part of the United Kingdom. The Labour party recognised that isolation and the need to include everyone in society. Our last manifesto had the specific objective of making the whole country autism-friendly. As we heard from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), many of the physical adjustments will not be major ones—a lot of it is to do with awareness.

The hon. Member for Strangford talked about children staring and telling them not to. Children will stare, but would it not be great if their parents could explain, “Yes, these people are different, but differences are what makes the world go round”? Being different is not bad, and that is the key point. It is about getting the awareness so that while people may stare, they will react differently and say, “That person is just different.”

Some councils and areas are working towards making autism-friendly cities a reality. Liverpool has the ambition of becoming the UK’s first autism-friendly city. It is working with businesses and cultural spaces, raising awareness of the condition and celebrating the achievements of those living with autism. There was an exhibition at the Tate of artwork by people with autism recently, and I think that is a brilliant idea. We should celebrate people’s differences and not define them specifically by the characteristic.

In the same way that someone in a wheelchair is not defined by their wheelchair, someone with autism is not defined by their autism. They have different needs—the same as the rest of us. However, their condition means that reasonable adjustments should be made, and the Equality Act 2010 applies. Will the Minister commit to raising awareness among businesses and those who own and operate public spaces of their duties to all under that Act? Too often, we hear, “We are wheelchair-accessible”, and that is simply not good enough any more. An autism-friendly city should enable those with autism confidently to access community infrastructure such as shopping centres, tourist attractions and public transport. There is a wealth of information on the noise and the sensory overload of public transport systems, so perhaps we should consider how we can change that.

I want to mention my local authority, Wigan. It has autism champions at the business expo event to talk to businesses and raise awareness of people with autism as customers and employees. Those champions show that only very minor adjustments are needed and that people with autism can be excellent employees. If businesses rule out those people without thinking about it, they are missing out.

This week, we have had a number of events raising awareness of autism, and that is to be celebrated, but words are not enough, just as it is not enough to have an autism hour and then forget about it the rest of the time. We need action to ensure a fully inclusive society and environment. The wonderful example of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West and her autism-friendly surgery will make many of us think about what we are doing to ensure a truly inclusive Parliament and a democracy in which all can take part.

If the Minister could allow a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the debate to come back, that would be helpful.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this debate on the accessibility of public buildings for autistic people. I know she cares deeply about the issue. I also applaud the work of the all-party parliamentary group on autism and thank other Members who have spoken this afternoon. I will run through the names so that Hansard has them. We have had interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the hon. Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff). I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their contributions.

I am coming to this debate with more of a technical view because I thought it would be helpful if I laid out what has happened so far, what the Government intend to do and how we will take that forward. It might be a bit dry—I apologise—but I wanted to get the technical bits on the record.

Autistic people prosper with the correct diagnosis and the correct support to meet their needs. Degrees of autism mean that some people require lots of support while others need less. I understand autistic people can face challenges in public buildings, particularly with orientation, noise, way-finding and signage, but also with many other things. People perceive an environment in different ways, and we are all on a spectrum of need, whether we are from a neurominority or whether we are neurotypical. My husband will work out which one I am; it is a challenge, but there we go.

We know that care is needed to shape our built environment to work for all. There are more than 600 different recognised neurodiverse conditions. Making buildings suit all is a complex issue. There are no recognised or accepted industry standards for designing buildings to meet the needs of people with neurodiverse conditions, although work is under way that I will describe.

It might help if I explain the current requirements for access to buildings, including public buildings. New buildings have to meet the access requirements, as set out in part M of schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010. The requirements are supported by detailed practical guidance in what are called approved documents. Volume 2 of “Approved Document M” covers non-domestic buildings and includes guidance relating specifically to public buildings. The guidance helps public building owners to comply with the regulations. It aims to encourage an inclusive design approach that includes everyone. To put the mind of the hon. Member for Bristol West at rest, we have been undertaking research into the effectiveness of the guidance, and I hope we will be able to publish that shortly.

Building owners are also covered by the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. In particular, that requires providers of services and facilities to members of the public to make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities are not placed at a substantial disadvantage compared with people without a disability. The duty can relate to physical features and how services and public functions are accessed and delivered. I will come back to the issue of the Department for Work and Pensions raised by the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East.

Statutory guidance does not stand alone; other sources of independent guidance can help. Many people turn to the British standard BS 8300, which describes accessibility and inclusive design for buildings. Inclusive design should address all forms of neurodiversity, including special considerations specific to autistic people. The British standard in that area, known as BS 8300-2, was published very recently, on 11 January 2018. Part 2 of the standard gives recommendations for the design of buildings in order to accommodate users with the widest range of characteristics and capabilities. It is applicable to the entrances of buildings, including outward-opening doors and windows, and to the interiors of buildings, such as entrances and reception facilities, and it covers much more besides.

Nevertheless, it is recognised that more needs to be done in the design of buildings to address the needs of neurodiverse people. Last year, to address a known gap in guidance on how to cater for neurodiversity, the British Standards Institution sponsored the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design to carry out a survey called “Design for the Mind”. Officials from the Department took part, and spread the word to generate participation among networks of design professionals. Perhaps later on the House authorities might like to look into that matter very deeply.

Researchers spoke with many designers, architects, access consultants, autistic people, carers and specialists with experience in the field to draw up some basic design principles for making better buildings. The survey sought to understand how to cater for the needs of neurodivergent people. The report published in February 2017 identified 11 common themes, important for the design of environments. The themes address issues such as clarity, which means making things easier to understand; sensory loads, that is to say, making the most of the senses while avoiding sensory overload; layout, including having familiar layouts and providing a preview of what is ahead or beyond before someone enters a space; flooring; decoration; signage; acoustics; and lighting.

Some people felt that the most important consideration for design of an environment for autistic people was taking advice from autistic people. The survey identifies a gap so that others can take up the baton. The republished British standard BS8200-2 stops short on neurodiversity because it lacks evidence to back up more focused advice. The Government are considering a request from the British Standards Institution to match-fund a new, publicly available specification, known as a PAS, in the broader field of neurodiversity, which would include autism. I expect that we will reach a decision on that shortly, so I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bristol West has introduced such a timely debate.

As well as legislation and standards, we want to encourage the industry to strengthen inclusive design, including consideration of neurodiversity, through better education and training. In recent years, the Department has provided significant support for a number of initiatives to promote inclusive design, including work with the Design Council/Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to develop high-quality, cross-disciplinary, continuous professional development modules on delivering inclusive design, and the development of a web-based hub for sharing knowledge, research and best practice in inclusive design. We are also supporting the Built Environment Professional Education project, which aims to ensure that newly qualified built environment professionals have the knowledge, skills and attitude to deliver accessible and inclusive buildings—not just buildings fit for the future but designers fit for the future.

Last autumn, the then Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), launched a design quality symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where 45 industry and local government representatives met to discuss how to improve design quality, which includes how effective quality and inclusion are integrated into the places and buildings that we plan and build. There will also be a national design conference this spring to raise the bar even higher.

Today’s debate has been an important one, and we welcome interest in autism and the built environment, and how that environment is perceived and used by autistic people. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West on raising the issue, and celebrate the valuable progress that the “Design for the Mind” project and the British Standards Institution have done to date to develop design and guidance.

I will try to answer some of the questions that hon. Members raised, particularly the question that H asked. The answer that my boffins have come up with is that helping children and young people to understand autism can be the key to peer acceptance. Raising awareness among teachers and other school staff will, in turn, help to increase their awareness and understanding. Since 2012, more than 150,000 people have been trained to deliver autism awareness training in education. That includes not just teachers and teaching assistants, but support staff, receptionists, dining hall staff and caretakers—everybody who is involved with pupils, including people who go on coach trips. We are currently in discussions about, with a bit of luck, extending the contract with the Department to do more on that. I hope that H will be happy with that answer.

The autism strategy commits to increasing the understanding of autism and building communities that are more accessible to autistic people by approving autism awareness training for frontline public staff, in line with the needs of their job. To answer the question from the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, I would add that the information will now be sent to the DWP to make sure that it can also take part in the process. I hope that the hon. Lady is happy with that answer.

Work has begun on developing a cross-Government strategy on loneliness in England—sorry, but Lanarkshire are doing their own thing up there, and in Northern Ireland. The strategy will bring together Government, local government, public services, voluntary and community organisations and build more integrated and resilient communities. We have also announced that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government now has a designated Minister for Loneliness—the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak).

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South wanted to know what we were going to do. Building regulations and British Standards are for all people, whether they are wheelchair users or someone with an invisible disability. Work to improve standards requires research, which is why we have commissioned the research about part M to fill in those aims and include everybody. As I said, the research will be published very shortly.

To conclude, this is about raising standards and improving the built environment for autistic and neurodiverse people. I look forward to working with everybody on the issue, particularly my friend the hon. Member for Bristol West and everybody who has spoken today. We want to continue the important work.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for their interventions, and, of course, to the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their speeches.

I am pleased that the Minister was able to give us such detailed information about the built environment, and the concept of inclusive built design. Although I talked a great deal about different aspects of making buildings welcoming that were non-physical, it is the physical that can set the tone for so many of these things. I am really grateful that she has taken the time to give so much information. I will follow up with her on some of the specifics. I am grateful to her for answering all of my questions, particularly on behalf of H—I thank her very much for that. I will write to her about some of the progress that might need to be made, and how I can measure and follow it.

I am grateful to all hon. Members for taking part in today’s debate. It matters to me a great deal that we think about access in a way that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, does not just mean that we are wheelchair accessible, and that allows us, as other hon. Members also said, to see making buildings and organisations autism-friendly as something that benefits us all.

I long for the day we have more quiet spaces on the estate for everybody’s benefit, but I think that that is part of thinking about how building regulations might be amended in some quite simple but straightforward ways—such as the ways in which we have thought about bicycle racks and wheelchair accessibility. We can make some determinations about simple, specific things. Not every building can have those quiet spaces, but many could. For public space to be truly accessible would be a remarkable achievement, and everybody here could feel that they have played a part in that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the accessibility of public buildings for people with autism.

Sitting adjourned.