I wish to touch on three areas today: diagnosis waiting times, employment and public awareness.
We have already heard this afternoon that the time that people have to wait for a diagnosis is unacceptable. That view is certainly reflected in the correspondence that I have received from my constituents on this matter. Janeen Shears from Preesall had to wait almost five years for her son’s diagnosis. She said:
“I was told my son was very complex and while professionals recognised many traits he didn’t ‘fit neatly into one diagnosis box’.”
That is because every autistic person is unique and different. Another constituent, Saffron Warde-Jones, who lives in Lancaster, said this to me:
“I have autism and was only diagnosed aged 44 after a lifetime of struggling.”
I have been privileged to work very closely with the local National Autistic Society group, which is chaired by Gill Mann. It was clear early on that one of the big issues facing the group was access to employment, which was reflected in the fact that only 15% of adults on the spectrum are in full-time paid work. That is why, locally, I am working with the NAS to put on a jobs fair to implore employers to take on autistic people. I am also looking forward to the Government publishing their White Paper on disability and employment, which will
“set out reforms to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities, including exploring the roles of employers to further reduce the disability employment gap and promote integration across health and employment.”
Can the Minister give us any indication of when to expect that White Paper, as I am aware that the date has been moving around?
We know anecdotally that autistic people feel that the current employment support services do not meet their needs, but the current system does not record their participation in or their outcomes from the Work programme. Going forward, I want to see more robust data on autistic people to understand how provision is working for them. Furthermore, what are we doing to support young people with autism in making the transition from education to the world of work? My constituent, Brian Simpson, said that his son gets a lot of support from school, but he is really worried about what will happen when his son finishes his education.
The Government have committed to replacing the current Work programme and Work Choice with a new Work and Health Programme for people with health conditions and disabilities. That presents us with an important opportunity to do more to support autistic people to find and to stay in work.
In relation to the new Work and Health Programme, can the Minister tell me on what date the tender document will be published, and from what date the programme will be operational? Will the specification for the programme require that the conditions of the claimants, including autism, be recorded by both providers and Jobcentre Plus, and what discussions has he had about the conditions that will be recorded?
On awareness funding, my constituent Janeen told me that people often think that people with autism have a “genius talent”. She said that they do not really understand the “meltdown” in someone’s behaviour. It is just used to describe any kind of naughty behaviour. The Government should take a lead in tackling this lack of understanding.
Half of all people on the autistic spectrum tell the NAS that they do not go out because they are worried about people’s reactions to their autism. A quarter of them have been asked to leave a public place because of the behaviour associated with their autism. How do parents cope with that? They respond by not taking their children to places where they do not feel they will be accepted, which makes their children’s world a little bit small. They cannot enjoy the public space that we all take for granted—the parks, the museums and the shopping centres.
The NAS video, which has had 50 million views online, has a fantastic way of describing just how difficult it is for parents of an autistic child. The Government can do a lot more. Around 800,000 people in this country are affected by dementia, and the Government have shown great bravery in trying to change public attitudes by spending more than £2 million on awareness campaigns. The same work needs to be done for people on the autistic spectrum. I am aware of the Government’s £340,000 programme in this area, and I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks, telling us more about the scope of this project. With programmes such as “The A Word” on the BBC and the books and articles that are out there, now is the time for the Government to turn this awareness of autism into a true understanding.