Cheryl Gillan is a former Secretary of State for Wales and MP for Chesham and Amersham
Today is Autism Sunday, an internationally recognised day of prayer for people with autism and Asperger syndrome. The call is striking in its simplicity: a plea to religious organisations, community groups, local and world leaders to speak up for people affected by the lifelong condition that affects over 700,000 people in the UK alone. For a number of years I have been aware of, and increasingly concerned by, the lack of support for people with autism in this country, and a lack of understanding that autism affects adults as well as children. Children with autism become adults with autism.
Autism affects the way a person communicates with, and relates to, other people, as well as how they make sense of the world. This can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks that many of us take for granted. In a recent survey by the National Autistic Society (NAS), 63 per cent of adults with autism who responded said that they need help preparing a meal while 36 per cent said they needed support washing and dressing.
I first became aware of the challenges facing adults with autism in accessing the help they needed back in 2008, and used a Private Members Bill to draw urgent attention to the issue. The resulting Autism Act 2009 was a phenomenal achievement, and is this country’s only piece of disability-specific legislation. It achieved cross party support and was heralded as a major step forwards in ensuring support and services for adults with the condition, by committing the Government into publishing an adult autism strategy. This set out how adults with autism should be better supported, and placed duties on local authorities and the NHS to take action.
I am immensely proud of what has been achieved so far, but there is still a long way to go before all adults with autism start receiving the care and support they need. For example, in a recent NAS survey 70 per cent of adults with autism said that they are not receiving the help they need from social services, and only 23 per cent of those who did have contact with social workers felt that they had a good understanding of the condition and its effects. This must change and the Government’s current review of the implementation of the strategy is a unique opportunity to urge local authorities and Ministers to ensure they live up to their commitments.
Times are challenging, but this must not be used as an excuse for failing to meet obligations to adults with autism and their families. With the right support, many adults with autism can work and participate in their communities. For instance, difficulties in communication and social interaction might mean that someone with autism finds it hard to find and keep a steady job. They may find it challenging to prepare a CV, or need support in preparing for an interview. And once they have a job, they might find it difficult to work with people who don’t understand their condition. Small disagreements that you or I might find easy to navigate, and accept as part of working life, can be really distressing for a person with autism, and have a devastating effect on their ability to do their job. These difficulties can be addressed by investing in low-level services such as employment support and social skills training, which can prevent an adult with autism from feeling isolated and neglected, on the periphery of society.
A number of barriers to successful implementation of the autism strategy have been identified, and the good news is that there are simple yet effective solutions to these challenges. An ‘innovation fund’ would support local authorities to improve the services currently available to adults with autism, and help them to develop understanding of the best way to deliver services and highlight areas of best practice .An autism awareness scheme would allow volunteers and community groups to tap into resources that would help them to develop a programme of autism awareness and training in their local areas. This can be achieved in the simplest of ways: adaptations to public buildings and local businesses, autism awareness training for front line staff in public services or more autism-friendly activities at the cinema or swimming pool, for example.
These changes need to be supported by a commitment to increasing transparency and accountability for improving services across local government. Together, these three proposals have the capacity to ensure that the strategy really works for adults with autism in England and helps them to lead the lives they choose. And there are financial benefits too. Economic modelling by Deloitte published last year shows that cost-savings can be made by investing in support for people with autism and other disabilities. The study shows that every £1 spent on services generates returns for central government, local government and people with disabilities and their families worth an average of £1.30.
As people all over the world take time today to remember people with autism in their thoughts and prayers, I would urge this Government to seriously consider the practical solutions that can be introduced to help adults with autism live a full and active life in our society. They have the chance to really change things and it should not go to waste.