Lee Scott was MP for Ilford North from 2005-2015.
It is estimated that there are more than half a million people in the UK with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs), and of these more than 130,000 are under 18 years of age.
Autism impairs social interaction, communication, and imagination, and this spectrum also covers conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome.
In the last few years numbers identified have risen, perhaps reflecting better understanding, and according to UK researchers autism may affect as many as one in 100 children. As yet the exact cause of ASD is unknown, and there is no ‘cure’.
I became personally involved on the issues around autism, first as a local councillor and then as an MP, through constituents whose son was diagnosed with severe ASD. They approached me for help with a particular initial problem.
It was in relation to this case that I first began to learn how complex, challenging and continuing these problems can be. Those with ASD will face these difficulties throughout their entire life.
In Government, both national and local, we Conservatives have a pretty good record in our support for young people with ASD.
To be very clear: this is not a matter I want us exploit for political advantage. But in my view we let our opponents, self-righteous as well as political, get away with whinging about the cuts and the heartless Tories. This is yet another ‘caring’ issue where we are hopeless at promoting both our achievements and what improvements we propose to make.
There are a number of key areas of concern where we must come together to address if we are going to make real progress on these issues.
Here in the UK we have made progress in the early diagnosis of children with autism over recent years. However, there is still room for further improvement, and best practice examples from abroad should be studied more closely.
Early diagnosis is vital so the child and their family can get the right health assistance and educational support as soon as possible. Targeted professional involvement at a young age can make a significant difference in the future quality of life.
Since the late 1970’s there has been an all out push for the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools. The desire to get these kids integrated was understandable but the ‘one size fits all’ approach has not in practice always proved to be the best solution. This overly dogmatic approach has frequently benefited neither them nor the children they are being taught alongside.
What is required is a flexible approach that assesses the real needs of the child and then provides a meaningful choice between mainstream and special education school places.
I have continued to be actively involved in championing a project that aims to get young people with autism and other special needs into paid employment. In the UK too few of our young adults with special needs are in full time or part time paid employment.
Studies have shown that almost four out of five of these young people who are on benefits want to work, but it is very clear that they need targeted support to achieve this. Our scheme aims to provide this assistance with the active partnership of local companies and organisations.
While there have been welcome improvements in the recognition and understanding of those with physical disability, there has not been such encouraging progress with conditions such as ASD. It is important that more effort is made to increase the public understanding of these conditions.
This is not just a task for Government and its agencies but has to be championed far more widely. I want to particularly commend in this regard the National Autistic Societies ‘Schools’ Autism Awareness Week’, which is taking place from the 14th to 18th March.
They are providing schools, teachers and pupils with helpful information on autism to raise awareness and understanding. The NAS has prepared comprehensive supporting material that can be downloaded from this link.
Over the years I have met with a number of Government Ministers from Labour, the Coalition and from the Conservatives on these issues and all of them, regardless of the politics, have expressed both their interest and strong support for what we are looking to achieve in our plans.
I want to record my particular thanks to the current Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP and her team. They are particularly receptive to our viewpoint and I am sure will continue to do all that they can to assist.
This whole issue of ASD is so very important that once involved it is quite impossible to walk away and I am absolutely determined to remain engaged in the wider campaign. By our commitment and hard work we can make a clear cut improvement in the quality of life for all of these young people.