Although I am aware that my right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan is not in her place, I wish to start by thanking her for her work in this area. I am aware from my constituents that she has bestowed so many rights on them through legislation and that she has started this whole chain. I pay tribute to her and give her my thanks on behalf of my constituents.
I was elected only 12 months ago. Before the election, I had no direct experience of autism. On being selected, a group of mothers who had autistic children or children with Asperger’s reached out to me and explained how difficult their lives were, what they needed and how hard it was to navigate through the system. I made a pledge to do all I could to help people with very special children.
On election, I was faced with one of my first cases. A mother told me how she had applied to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for a blue badge because her child, who was six, had such a difficult condition. Whenever he saw anybody in the street, he just collapsed on to the floor. As a result, she had to carry her child everywhere. She applied for a blue badge, but because the DVLA’s tick-box system did not register any physical disability her application was turned down. We had to fight on her behalf. We were fortunate to be able to go in at a higher level and get somebody to understand the complex needs of her child. That taught me that those with autism, who have such unique and differing needs, do not fit into the tick-box system. I ask the Minister whether he can find some way of ensuring that anybody who works in a tick-box employment system—or a Q and A system—has autism training. It is often impossible for the families of autistic children to navigate the system.
Since then, I have dealt with more cases, and I have been involved in some very special groups dealing with autism in my constituency of Bexhill and Battle. I have two points on which I wish to focus: education and the workplace.
I am fortunate that in Bexhill we have two very special schools that cater for those with autism, as well as those with other conditions. The first is Glyne Gap School, a day school which is rated “outstanding” in all areas. The Ofsted report in 2015 referred to
“the inspirational leadership of the headteacher and assistant headteachers”,
with the result that
“all staff have an uncompromising focus on the quality of learning for all pupils.”
Surely that must be the goal of every school that looks after children with autism.
The second school is St Mary’s, also in Bexhill, where young people do not just learn, but live. The school has had a difficult time owing to a crisis of confidence in the chief executive. I visited the school the day the chief executive left and I was amazed at how caring, supportive and dedicated those teachers were to children with incredibly difficult and challenging conditions. I take my hat off to all who work in that environment. The school still requires improvement, but I believe that better times are ahead.
Constituents have raised with me a number of points in respect of schools. I have two very good schools but, as I mentioned, autistic children have individual and different needs and often need a different school to cater for them, but my council, East Sussex County Council, tends to favour just one school. As a result, it is very difficult for parents to get their choice of school. I would like to see more freedom. I welcome the fact that we have trained 90,000 teachers in autism, but another comment that I have had is that a child was felt by their parents to have been isolated and restrained, rather than experiencing positive handling strategies, which Team Teach and other strategies provide. As has been mentioned, my constituents struggle because of the long time it takes to get a diagnosis.
I have only 30 seconds left, but I want to mention employment. Tomorrow I have a jobs and apprenticeships fair, and I am delighted that St Mary’s in Bexhill will be bringing its young people down so that we can try and get them apprenticeships. I am fortunate to have in my constituency an organisation called Little Gate Farm, which helps people find employment opportunities. It tries to bridge the gap between school and employment in rural communities. I salute what that organisation does, and I salute what everybody does in my constituency for those very special and gifted people.