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The NAO figure was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins-that 74 per cent of local authorities do not have a commissioning strategy for adults with

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autism-so there is a major job to be done to develop appropriate services for adults by local authorities, in particular. I am delighted that a strategy is being consulted on and I very much hope that the Government will take note of the all-party group's response about the appropriate strategy.

The National Autism Society's "Don't Write Me Off" campaign is designed to focus specifically on employment and benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, picked up some of those points about employment and benefits for adults with autism. The facts are very concerning in that area. The point that only 15 per cent of adults with autism are in a full-time job is extremely concerning. The NAS campaign is particularly targeted at changing the application process for employment and support allowance. There must be a greater awareness of autism among Jobcentre Plus staff, in particular.

Because of my background as a chair of TreeHouse until last year, I want to highlight some of the issues relating to young people. When the Bill entered the other place, the Government gave certain undertakings in order that items relating to children were withdrawn. The undertakings were that further funding would be provided for the Autism Education Trust and for the transition support programme. I hope that the Minister can comment in particular on whether those pledges are being fulfilled. Of course, there are huge problems with data collection on young people and children with ASD. About 70 per cent of local authorities cannot provide reliable information about the number of children in their area with autism. That must be corrected. I shall be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

Having the right kind of access to education is crucial for the social inclusion of children with autism and improving outcomes for them. Skills for independent living need to be imparted, including social skills. A great deal of work has been done by TreeHouse working with parents to find what they believe to be the particular aspects of education that their children need. Transition planning for young people is particularly important, as are staff training in mainstream schools and developing national care standards.

I have a final word about exclusion. Children with autism are nine times more likely to be excluded from school than the rest of the school population. That matter needs correction. I wish that I had more time to outline some of the issues.

7.56 pm

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on drawing our attention to these important issues. I shall focus my remarks on four areas, the first being employment. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, only 15 per cent of people with autism have a full-time job, but 79 per cent of people who are not working and in receipt of benefit want to work. I declare an interest as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission is currently producing a good practice case study concerning the employment of people with autism and other neurodiverse profiles with the Government Communications Headquarters.

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We have heard about accessibility from the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. We know that there is existing disability discrimination legislation about access, but people with neurodiverse profiles continue to experience particular barriers. The commission is currently working to try to address those issues with, first, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to raise awareness among planners and designers and, secondly, with the Building Standards Institute to establish a task group to consider how the relevant building regulations can be amended to reflect their particular needs.

My third point is on education. The commission recently supported a legal case that clarified that schools must ensure that they provide reasonable adjustments to children with autism, even if they display "unwanted behaviour" or very challenging behaviour. Following the Equality Bill, I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will revise their guidance and clarify the issue in terms of the excluded conditions set out within the meaning of disability regulations.

Lastly, we must recognise that, since the National Autistic Society was founded nearly 50 years ago, the children of those founders have grown up and are ageing, as is the whole of society. However, older adults with autism have been largely ignored in recent press coverage of social care. We still do not know whether and how people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions age. We do not know whether their symptoms intensify, for example. There is much more that we need to learn. Autism across the life course deserves a far higher profile. More research is essential. I hope that the noble Baroness can assure us that attention will now be given to a group of people of all ages who are extremely vulnerable and deserve our close attention.

7.59 pm

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for highlighting the particular needs and contribution of those living with autism in our society. Like the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I am grateful to the National Autistic Society for its research and for demonstrating that the employment and support allowance is not accessed anything like easily enough by those with autism. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, took up this point; I agree with him and look forward to the response.

I want to go further than the specific case of ESA, important though that is, and ask the Government how they propose to widen our understanding of autism and, particularly, of the contribution that those on that spectrum can make to our life and culture. I first became actively involved in working alongside those with autism through the work of Storm House School in Wath upon Dearne in South Yorkshire some 30 years ago. Since then, in one sense, there has been a great increase in our understanding of and appreciation for those with autism. In other ways, however, little of this understanding has affected our practice as a society. Faith communities are, at their best, one place where those with autism can find the enhanced social inclusion for which the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, pleads.

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This summer, the Church of England published Opening the Doors, which is designed to enhance our understanding.

Those with autism can, and do, provide welcome and excitement in churches and elsewhere within our society. Time and again, those with autism have provided me with an enthusiastic welcome and a radiant smile. There is a lightness of spirit about many of those with autism that can put our overfrenetic and overfearful culture to shame. Those gifts of honesty, spontaneity and eagerness to participate are to be welcomed and shared. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, spoke of a waste of talent and I emphasise that it is important that we accept and receive from those with autism as well as contribute to their lives and development.

I know full well that that appreciation will come only if government and others develop greater understanding of autism within our culture. There can be a lack of communication skills and a hypersensitivity that lead other people to find those with autism awkward and demanding. There is often a need for rest and a lack of sudden movement, which is not confined to those with autism but is typical of them. I hope that the Government will respond by giving specific help in the benefits system and in the disability Act and by helping to spread understanding of autism and an affirmation of the qualities that those with autism could bring to our culture, if only we were prepared to let them.

8.03 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness, with her considerable social experience, has put this issue so clearly before us this evening. I am glad that in doing so she paid tribute to the voluntary organisations that play such a crucial part. Apart from the issue of employment, there are two statistics that particularly trouble me. First, with 40 per cent of autistic children, there is a delay in diagnosis. Secondly, as we have already heard, 25 per cent are at some point excluded from school. This must mean that earlier diagnosis is a priority, which means that we must give more attention to the recruitment and placement of educational psychologists. We need the people to do that work if we recognise it as an issue. We then have to be certain that we have the material and human resources in place for the special educational services that are needed.

However, as the right reverend Prelate just put it so movingly, the third priority is better public understanding. As with other forms of exclusion-the huge issue that faces us all in the 21st century in one form or another-we are much better at talking about the people who are excluded than at talking with them. There is a great need for the reassertion of the spirit of solidarity. If this is to be achieved, the media have a key part to play.

I believe that one of the heaviest challenges lies in the sphere of formal education. I am afraid that the direction our education is taking these days, with its emphasis on league tables that deal with quantitative learning, means that we are neglecting the spiritual and wider character-building of our children. I am certain that a successful education system means that

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children learn through experience. They develop, they enrich themselves and they grow by their relationships with others, and particularly by their relationships with those who have special needs and special challenges to face. In that context, I suggest to the House that if we are going to win this battle not just tactically by new arrangements, but strategically, it is essential that we get back into our education system values, sensitivity, social responsibility, concern and recognising our interdependence. Along this road, we can bring autistic children like any others into a full part in society and give them a real opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous talents that they have to offer.

8.06 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I declare an interest as the father of a daughter with autism. There are over 300,000 working-age adults with autism, but recent NAS research found that a third of them are without a job or benefits, completely excluded from society, a point well made by my noble friend.

People with autism face many challenges in applying for work and in the workplace itself. Making eye contact and answering questions that involve hypothetical scenarios during interviews can be difficult, and a lack of understanding of workplace etiquette can mean people do not fit in easily or are perceived to act inappropriately. Yet with the right support, people with autism can thrive in the workplace. The NAS's employment service, Prospects, is a specialist service supporting people who have autism into mainstream jobs. It has a very successful record of helping people find and retain work. Between 1995 and 2003, 67 per cent of the clients it supported found work. Furthermore, 70 per cent of the pilot scheme's beneficiaries from 1995 to 1997 were still in employment in 2003.

Much of Prospects's work focuses on supporting employers to make what are often simple, yet positive, adjustments to the way employers conduct interviews and manage people with autism. This includes advice on how to structure the recruitment process so that it works for people with autism; many organisations use group tests as part of their assessment for roles, but a work trial is a more appropriate interview method for an individual with autism. It also offers training to employers to enable them to better support people with autism in the workplace. For example, Sam got a job as a sales assistant. He enjoyed talking to customers as part of his role, but he needed guidance on what to say and how long to talk for. Left to his own devices, Sam would go on talking to customers even when they were desperate to get away but were too polite to say so. Sam's manager helped him by suggesting suitable topics of conversation. He was encouraged to discuss the weather or the products in the store, rather than more personal subjects. Sam's manager had the skills to offer simple, practical support that made a real difference to Sam in his new role. However, there are currently very few specialist autism employment services and very little support available to adults with autism looking for work.

There are just as many difficulties for those seeking support from the benefits system. Recent NAS research has found that people with autism are regularly being denied the support of an advocate as they apply for

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benefits, they are facing unnecessary administrative hurdles with requirements for sick-notes and all too often they are being assessed by doctors with little or no knowledge of autism. Paula, a young woman with autism, was keen to access the extra support to find work that comes with employment and support allowance, the benefit that is being introduced to replace incapacity benefit. She went to her medical assessment with a seven-page report from her psychiatrist; yet the doctor carrying out the assessment recorded that he saw no evidence of communication difficulties, and her application was rejected. She went to appeal and was awarded the benefit straightaway. People should not have to fight to get the support that they need. Everyone has the right to a job, and people with autism are no different.

8.10 pm

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a mother of a 30 year-old autistic person.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Prashar has brought the debate to this House, and I take the opportunity to salute her longstanding commitment and work to promote equality and social justice. I say "hear, hear" to the immense contributions from all sides of the House. In accepting that we have a long way to go in eradicating discrimination, it is worth remembering how much progress we have made. I welcome the Autism Bill-the first legislation on a specific disability-which brings autism in from the cold of the fringes of the disability movement.

It has been more than 10 years since my friends Ivan and Charika Corea of the UK Autism Foundation first brought your Lordships' attention to the desperate plight of those caring for autistic children and adults. The new Autism Bill is a great step and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, said in this House, it puts autism on a statutory footing and makes the Government accountable. I am delighted about that. Indeed, all the major autism charities are pleased by the prospect of lasting changes that must occur if we are serious about equality for people with autism.

The adult autism strategy launched by our Government will no doubt further enhance care, support and employment opportunities for people with autism, as well as boosting the skills of health and social care staff who support the autism community. This is certainly a step in the right direction, given what many charities say about the prevailing conditions for a vast number of families and people with autism, Asperger's syndrome and other disabilities, who are in a continuous struggle for services and opportunity. Particular concerns remain about those in the transitional stage, about adults and about services for ethnic minority communities, as has been mentioned. Here I should mention the deaths of Fiona and Francecca Pilkington and how far we still have to go in understanding disability matters.

We are in the longest recession since records began, and the impact on the vulnerable is as yet unknown. The UK Autism Foundation has written to all the major political parties urging action. It reports examples of parents and carers of children and adults with autism and Asperger's syndrome who desperately need

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support and are in financial crisis. We cannot wait another 10 years for a strategy to come along and have an impact. The families need support now.

I am further concerned about the news of cuts in public services having an impact on children and adults with autism, and therefore support the call from some of the charities for the Chancellor to consider increasing tax credits, the DLA and the CLA for disabled persons and their carers. In 2005, I called for an autism task force in government in this very place, and I repeat that call. Will the Minister consider the matter? Such a task force would help different government departments to work together. The Government's strategy and further consultations will, it seems to me, create further delays for families and individuals accessing services, education and employment opportunities that it should be their right to access, and it is very important that we ensure that equality and justice prevail for them just as they should for us all.

8.14 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, the most depressing thing about this debate is that we have heard it all before in the context of other disabilities. The pattern of "if you do not spot it, you do not put in any money or effort, and you do not have anything" is quite clearly seen throughout the briefing and in the experiences that have been discussed in this debate.

When I read the information that was provided by the National Autistic Society on the non-take-up of benefits I was not at all surprised because, despite the fact that there are supposed to be interviews to assess benefit-I have challenged the Government on this for more than a decade-if the person conducting the interview does not understand the situation with which they are dealing, they cannot get the right answer; it is that simple. There must be investment in the people who are conducting the interviews. You can go into education and everything else and follow this through but, if you do not give the right support at the right time, you overload the family financially and emotionally and put the problem on to another department. Ultimately, prisons and hospitals pick up the pieces.

Will the Government assure us that they will have properly trained people in every single place that issues benefits-I will not even try to mention them all-who have a basic knowledge of this problem and can bring in the right support at the right time? The Government have said that they will, but when will they have those people who can intervene correctly? If we do not have that assurance, with the best will in the world and even with the various Acts that give this legal right, this will not happen.

I have raised all these points in connection with dyslexia, and we are in the process of trying to batter the Government into doing these things in connection with autism. Will the Government say when they are going to do the right thing, which their own legislation has said they should? If they do not, all the warm words in the world will not touch this.

8.16 pm

Earl Howe: My Lords, the National Autistic Society's recent report, Don't Write Me Off, brings home in graphic style the amount that there still is to accomplish

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if we are to do justice to this poorly understood and poorly served section of the community, but at least and at last a head of steam is building up. In the past few months, we have had the National Audit Office report; the report by the Public Accounts Committee; the Bercow report; and, very significantly, the Private Member's Bill of my honourable friend Mrs Gillan, on which she, and I have to say the Government, are to be warmly congratulated. With the cross-party acceptance of her Bill, I hope that things will finally get moving in this area. They certainly need to.

At the heart of the problem is a very simple and sad truth; people do not understand autism. That basic understanding must begin with parents and schools. The life chances of those with autism are made or broken at school. If social inclusion is not achieved then, the road to independent living and employment in adulthood is very rocky indeed.

TreeHouse makes the central pointthat the essence of autism is an inability to communicate or interact normally with other people, and that therefore unless the rest of us make an allowance for this and actively work to overcome it, social inclusion is simply not going to happen. I was not in the least surprised to read in the TreeHouse paper that one of the most important things that parents believe can be done by schools is to provide their autistic children with an environment that meets their needs in a holistic way, not just academic. The outcomes that children should work towards in school are about acquiring social and practical skills, and learning how to manage their behaviour. That is why, for this particular group, learning how to mix with other people in an ordinary school environment is by far the best option if it can be achieved.

Sometimes it cannot be achieved, which brings us to the other central point. We cannot design services merely around a diagnosis. Services have to be needs-led according to each individual, which the Autism Education Trust said in its excellent review last year all too often does not happen. Good practice is down to good training, as we have heard, and it would be helpful to hear from the Minister that the Government's autism strategy will devote space to the issue of training. But we also know from the NAS that autism is capable of an equal degree of misunderstanding in the workplace and, as we have heard, in jobcentres, where more than a third of those asked said that their disability employment adviser's knowledge of autism was "very bad" or "bad". I was dismayed to read in the Don't Write Me Off report how people have to struggle when applying for employment and support allowance. All too often, the questions put to them are completely inappropriate. These things need to be tackled. We have heard about the third of a million people of working age in the UK with an autistic spectrum disorder; but only 12 per cent of these are in full-time employment. That statistic is an indictment.

I welcome what the Government are at last doing to bring the needs of autistic people to the fore, with a meeting of minds from all political parties. The stress and misery endured by families with ASD in their midst, particularly poorer ones, is very severe and too often they are being let down by local authority services. It is a major issue and the momentum of government action really must be maintained.

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8.20 pm

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, this is a very important debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on initiating it. I also congratulate other noble Lords on delivering on-the-point, to-time speeches. We can all agree that people with autistic spectrum conditions face enormous barriers to inclusion in society, barriers which may affect something as fundamental as an individual's ability to build relationships and communicate with the people around them. As the National Audit Office's recent study showed us, only around 15 per cent of people with autism have a job, a point also made by noble Lords. Too many children with autism are excluded from school, and too many people are sent across the country to special facilities. We know that this is no longer acceptable.

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