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8 Jan 2003 : Column 286—continued


Natural Health Products

7.27 pm

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I have pleasure in presenting a petition signed by 320 people on behalf of my constituent, Isabel Wood-Ayub, proprietor of the Pumpernickel health food store in Bedford.

The petition states:

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To lie upon the Table.

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Autism Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

7.28 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this issue to the House so soon after the end of international autism awareness year. Important contributions have been made by speakers in earlier debates, and I have read the remarks of the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is chairman of the all-party group. Although I fully recognise the advances made last year, the guidelines on good practice, the good practice in many places and the Government's increased disability funding, there are still families who have extreme difficulty in accessing and obtaining the services that they need.

Autism is more usually referred to these days as ASD—autistic spectrum disorders—and that term covers a number of conditions. People with ASD range from those who may have a learning disability, to those with average or above average intelligence. The condition may be linked to other disabilities and conditions. Despite their wide-ranging differences, everyone with ASD has difficulty with social interaction, social communication and imagination. It is estimated to affect more than 500,000 families in the United Kingdom. One in 86 children are thought to have ASD, but only one in 152 schoolchildren have had a formal diagnosis.

There is little understanding about what causes ASD, but it is likely that genetic predisposition and environmental factors are both involved. No medication can correct the condition, but there is evidence that dietary changes can assist in some cases. It may be that biochemical differences, based on fatty acid metabolism or sulphate levels, provide a partial scientific explanation for differences in membranes and chemical transmitters involved in neural functioning. Interesting articles on the subject may be found in The Nutrition Practitioner, volume 3.3, dated November 2001, and in the You! edition of 25 February 2001.

The National Autistic Society provides services, support and information to its 11,000 members. I am grateful for the briefing that it provided to me, and for the many references to the Xignored or ineligible", which were also kindly sent to me by the all-party group. A common theme mentioned by the NAS and other organisations is that although the conditions are increasingly being diagnosed, the provision of any sort of diagnosis depends on where one lives. Moreover, services after diagnosis are patchy, incomplete or non-existent.

The NAS says:

I would add that that is particularly important in cases where parents themselves may be undiagnosed with ASD. The national initiative for autism screening and

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assessment—shortened to NIASA—consists of a panel of health and education professionals who aim to address the challenge of screening diagnosis and early intervention for children with autism. The NAS says that it is crucial that the Government fully support NIASA, and that they ensure that it is rolled out to benefit all children with autism, wherever they live.

There are sound economic reasons for the country to take this condition seriously. Health economists have estimated an average lifetime cost to the state of #2.93 million per person with autism. The rising numbers being identified make a compelling financial argument for the provision of services to facilitate employment and independent living for this group.

On Monday of this week, I visited a resource school in my constituency. The head teacher described how a young boy with ASD had had his potential Xunlocked" with appropriate teaching. The NAS says that LEAs should plan to train all teachers, assistants and specialist professionals in the awareness and understanding of autism, as part of the accessibility planning duty introduced by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. However, teaching with trained teachers and assistants, important as it is, is not enough. Families will often need ongoing health care and social care support, and it is rare to find this offered as a streamlined service. They will need transition planning as their children start school, when they move to secondary school, and as they leave school.

I want to pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Mr. Carroll, who has fought every inch of the way to gain appropriate provision for his seven-year-old son, and support for his family. He is not there yet. I asked for this debate because he brought this condition to my attention, because I know how difficult things are for him and his family, and because I know how difficult things will be for others, some of whom will lack Mr. Carroll's determination.

I want to quote from a letter that I received from Mr. Carroll. I cannot quote all of it, as it runs to four pages, even though it covers only the six months from June last year. Mr. Carroll has written many letters and been in communication with many people, and is simply unable to access the services that his son needs.

The letter begins by referring to letters written in 2002, dated 13 June, 16 October, 6 November, 18 November, 18 December, 19 December, and 23 December. That indicates how much Mr. Carroll and his family are having to do. He talks about the difficulty of obtaining specialist health service appointments, and says that he has not been able to get an appointment since June. He writes:

the family actually has a new baby as well—

Those difficulties are:

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Mr. Carroll goes on to describe a range of typical behaviours associated with severe autism, and a range of other related problems:

Alexander was described on 12 June 2002 by his consultant as having Xsevere autism" and Xdifficulties of poor sleep." Mr. Carroll says:

There then followed difficulties because Alexander was not being properly followed up with a range of medications. The medications do not work but Mr. Carroll has not able to access the people with whom he needs to speak because the medication—Melatonin—can be prescribed only by a consultant. If the consultant cannot be accessed, the medication cannot be changed. The letter contains a page of problems to do with the medication.

Mr. Carroll says that the family by chance heard of sleep clinics through the health centre. This was mentioned to the GP, who said that Alexander had to be referred to a child psychiatrist to access the service. He has not been able to get to a child psychiatrist, so he has not been able to access the service.

Mr. Carroll writes that he needs immediate help from a psychiatrist or psychologist

Mr. Carroll goes on to say that he has been referred to another hospital in Manchester, but has been told that that hospital cannot treat Alexander because he should be treated by his home hospital. That home hospital then wrote another letter to say that the Manchester hospital might be willing to see Alexander if a referral was made. That shows how the matter is being sent backwards and forwards all the time.

Mr. Carroll says that he has written to ask how he can get in touch with a child psychiatrist as he needs

The family has received a leaflet from Alexander's school about the Treehouse centre in Stockport. Their GP made a referral, but the family has heard nothing yet. Mr. Carroll says:

He talks about another two letters that he has had to write. He says:

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The letter is heartbreaking because it shows the sort of difficulties that the family suffer.

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