Miles Holder is a Conservative activist, and is a Young Ambassador for the National Autistic Society.
I’ve had numerous conversations which all have ended up with the same question: how can I, as a Conservative, campaign for improvements for disabled people? But being a Tory and supporting disabled rights are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, no one party has the right to claim people with disabilities for themselves, and attempt to claim the moral advantage on that basis.
There is a generalised political assumption about disabled people – that if one has a disability, one must support Labour, and woe betide you if you have the cheek, the arrogance, the audacity not to do what they tell you. It’s this Labour obsession with identity politics and the tokenism towards minority groups such the disabled which helps to explain why I’m determined to prove this stereotype wrong.
I believe view that disabled people, which include the 700,000 autistic people in the UK, should be recognised as capable of achieving the fullest of their potential with the right support – not shunted into a state of welfare dependency and ostracised from ambition and society.
The Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto stated that the Conservative Party would try to “halve the disability employment gap”. Applied to people with autism, that commitment would require their employment to double by 2020. In the 2017 manifesto, the commitment changed: “we will get one million more disabled people into employment in the next ten years”. Certainly, this was encouraging for people with disabilities.
However, according to the National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information in the Workplace report, just 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time employment, and only 32 per cent of autistic adults are in any kind of paid work. With 700,000 autistic people in the UK, the ambition to halve the disability employment gap can only be achieved through addressing the specific needs and circumstances of autistic people.
Things need to change as they aren’t working, with too many autistic people unemployed, despite 77 per cent of autistic people wanting to work. Legislation such as the 2010 Equality Act is there to support autistic people in employment, but needs to be reinforced in order to make the difference.
What must be overcome is the lack of awareness between employers and those with autism. The Conservatives could “launch a national programme to promote the employment potential of autistic people to employers”, in the words of the report, by working with the devolved administrations in the UK. We could make sure that they are learning about what support works for autistic adults, and invest further in that support.
Here are some further ideas. Record the outcomes for autistic adults who go on the new Work and Health Programme, and who are accessing help through the Jobcentre. Monitor what is working and what isn’t. Set a target within a wider action plan to boost the number of autistic apprenticeships in the Government’s overall target of three million. Implement the recommendations of the Apprenticeships Taskforce, and ensure that the specific needs of autistic people are taken into account in that implementation. The Government could lead the way in its own employment practices, increasing work experience schemes for autistic adults across government departments. We should continue encouraging some of the world’s biggest companies, who are hiring more autistic individuals with specific skills.
The Children and Families Act reformed the current special educational needs system. However, it has become increasingly clear that the “reforms to the special educational needs system were not having the desired effect” and that “more was needed to transform understanding across our schools”. Education is an important aspect of life, and you usually only get one chance at it. So it is frustrating that children on the autistic spectrum are being let down by the education system.
Furthermore, fewer than half of children and young people on the autism spectrum say they are happy at school. Seventy per cent of parents say that support was not put in place quickly enough for their child; nearly 70 per cent waited more than six months for support and 50 per cent waited more than a year. 42 per cent of parents say that their child was refused an assessment of their special educational needs the first time it was requested.
For parents, it is worrying that fewer than five in ten teachers say that they are confident about supporting a child on the autism spectrum. The Department for Education’s own figures show that autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded from school for a fixed period than children who do not have any special educational needs. Another recent survey by the charity Ambitious About Autism suggests that as many as 26,000 children and young people on the autism spectrum are being unlawfully excluded each year. This is clearly an issue that comes down to effective enforcement of the current law, rather than requiring new legislation.
What could be done to change this? The All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism released its Autism and Education in England report last year after an inquiry co-chaired by Huw Merriman and Maria Caulfield. It was clear for them that “while progress has been made and there is good practice in some areas, much more is needed”. The Young Ambassadors group of the National Autistic Society, which I’m now a part of, told them that some of the challenges they face at school include bullying and social isolation, being misunderstood by staff and other pupils, and coping with changes to the daily routine.
The recommendations of this report took into account what the Young Ambassadors suggested. The report recommends that the Government should develop a national autism and education strategy by the end of 2019 to include: training for school staff; reasonable adjustments for pupils on the autism spectrum in schools; the provision of a specialist curriculum for all pupils who need one, measures to reduce bullying and promote inclusion, and guidance for local authorities on commissioning the full range of education provision and support. Autism understanding should be embedded in the education through autism training for all teachers and headteachers (rather than just teachers undergoing their Initial Teacher Training, as important as that is), alongside ongoing funding for the Autism Education Trust. Local Authority staff and school staff should receive training in the requirements of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice.
The report has been well received so far by the Government, with Damian Hinds stating, at the parliamentary launch of the report, that “for people with autism, one size does not fit all”. Nadhim Zahawi, the SEN Minister, responding to a Commons debate about the report, said that the Government will “look in more detail at the report to address the challenges in the education system”.
As well as continuing to work with the Autism Education Trust to make sure autism training is delivered across the education system in England, the Government also undertake a review on exclusions that would include looking at children on the autism spectrum and how to make sure schools has ‘an inclusive ethos’. All of these steps are reassuring but as the report makes clear, there is still a long way to go to create a education system that meets the needs of all autistic children and young people.
As someone who is experiencing the reality of the situation in education and employment, I think that these are sensible recommendations. I urge my party and the Government to implement them, so that the lives of those on the autistic spectrum can be improved. Let’s use the decade anniversary of the Autism Act in 2019 to develop a National Autism Strategy which the Conservatives can be proud of. In order to achieve a Britain fit for the future, the needs of those on the autistic spectrum must be met.