Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the National Autistic Society after the publication of the Welfare Reform Green Paper

  The National Autistic Society (NAS) is the leading charity for people with autism (including Asperger syndrome) in the UK. It has a membership of 14,000, a network of 60 branches, and 90 partner organisations in the autism field. The NAS is in a unique position to comment on issues affecting people with autistic spectrum disorders because it operates in all four nations of the UK. The NAS exists to champion the rights and interests of all people with autism and to ensure that they and their families receive quality services, appropriate to their needs. The NAS's employment agency—Prospects—is the only specialist agency supporting people who have autism into mainstream jobs. There are approximately 535,000 people with autistic spectrum disorders in the UK.

  The NAS submitted written evidence to the inquiry on 3 October 2005. We would like to take the opportunity available to make additional comments on the reform of incapacity benefits, following the publication of DWP's Green Paper: "A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work". In addition to the issues discussed in our original submission, or by way of expanding or clarifying those points, is the following:


  Autism (including Asperger Syndrome) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. People with autism experience three main areas of difficulty—known as the triad of impairments. These are: social interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example, appearing aloof and indifferent to other people); social communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example, not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice); imagination (people may also have difficulty with sequencing, organising and planning ahead).

  Autism is a spectrum condition so, although everyone with autism will have a combination of these difficulties, the characteristics will vary greatly and some may be demonstrated more strongly than others. The implications of this should be considered in the development of policy.


  The role of professionals in the system is crucial in determining the nature of the experience for an individual. Whether the professional is a Personal Adviser, medical practitioner (including psychologists) or Disability Employment Adviser, it is essential that if someone is assessing or supporting an individual with autism that they have knowledge and experience of the condition. In our experience that knowledge is often lacking, for example, 42% of GPs said they did not have sufficient information to make an informed assessment about the likelihood of a patient having autism. As a consequence we feel that people with autism do not receive the support that they are entitled to. We would like a commitment from Government that any Disability Employment Adviser, Personal Adviser or medical practitioner who is assessing or supporting an individual with autism has considerable knowledge and understanding of the condition.


  The necessity of training becomes particularly evident with the proposal that sanctions and conditionality will become part of the system for new claimants. Without sufficient training there is a danger that people will face cuts to their benefit levels as a result of behaviour that is a result of their condition being misconstrued as an unwillingness to engage. For example, people with Asperger syndrome may speak fluently but they may not take much notice of the reaction of the people listening to them or because all individuals with autism have difficulty with flexibility of thought, they will have difficulty understanding someone else's perspective.

  The structure of the Work Focused Interview (WFI) may need to be adapted to ensure that all individuals understand what is required of them. The WFI process will need to be explained with clarity to individuals with autism. The "hidden" nature of Asperger syndrome can often mean that misunderstandings can occur but are not obvious to those with no knowledge of the disability.

  The NAS believes that if sanctions are to form part of the system then whoever decides whether benefit levels should be reduced should have specialist knowledge of the disabilities that people they are working with have.


  The revision of the Personal Capability Assessment, including the mental health component, will be, for people with autism, one of the most critical elements of the proposed reforms. Autism is a developmental disability, not a mental health illness or a learning disability, therefore it is important that the particular characteristics of the condition are accounted for during any revision of the gateway, including the mental health descriptors. It is often a failure to appreciate and account for the nature of autism that leads to unfair treatment of people with autism. It is essential that the NAS is involved in the proposed work to review the gateway.


  The experience of people with autism in the pathways to work pilot areas has not been monitored. We would like a commitment from the Government to monitor the affect that Pathways has for people with autism.

  We are concerned about the mention of outcome based contracts for Pathways to Work, as any system based on outcomes should account for the fact that people have different support needs and will need differing amounts of time to find employment. The NAS's employment agency, Prospects, has some clients who require considerable support to build confidence and work skills, as well as identifying suitable work goals. Prospects have a very successful record of helping people find and retain work, for example, 67% of the clients they supported between 1995-2003 found work (and they cater for a very wide range of referrals that come through Jobcentre Plus and the New Deal for Disabled People programme). However, Prospects has encountered difficulties with the rigid nature of outcomes based, time limited funding, when structures do not make allowances for the fact that people with autism need more support than is often available. As a result, Prospects has to provide that additional support as a cost to itself.


  People with autism need ongoing, specialist support in the work place. Access to work funding is a route to providing this support. The NAS is disappointed that the Green Paper failed to allocate additional funds to what is widely recognised as a successful programme.

  The NAS would also welcome Access to work funding being available for more than six months for individuals undertaking permitted work. Some individuals with autism may not be able to work more that 16 hours per week, but they still benefit greatly from ongoing support to help them continue to work.

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