Two weeks ago I would not have been able to speak in this debate, but because of a pressing constituency issue I have found myself suddenly having to read up and listen, and I have learned so much today about autism. My only previous experience was teaching some autistic young men who passed through my hands when I was a further education lecturer.
I have become more and more aware of the crying need to raise awareness of autism at all levels—in the general public as well as with public authorities. My hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara mentioned the Scottish Government’s plans for autism and their strategy. As part of that strategy, they opened six centres across Scotland to provide a one-stop shop experience for parents and people with autism. The one-stop shop in Motherwell will probably close in June this year. Since that has been announced, I have had innumerable emails from people in my constituency and outwith it, because the shop covers the whole of Lanarkshire. There are two local authorities involved—North Lanarkshire Council and South Lanarkshire Council—which will no longer fund those services. As hon. Members can imagine, that is a devastating blow to my constituents and people across Lanarkshire.
The one-stop shop provides workshops, training for parents and professionals, and support services for those who have autism. Those services are available even before diagnosis: anyone who thinks there may be an issue can go there and get advice. The shop was planning to run further courses for girls with autism, which is a very important area, and it was hoping also to run other specific and technical courses for parents and professionals.
My local authority, North Lanarkshire Council, has indicated that it will continue to fund an organisation called HOPE for Autism, which does good work with families in North Lanarkshire. However, the organisation’s services can be accessed only after diagnosis and its work focuses mainly on socialising and is for children only. There is also an annual fee per child for parents who join.
The reduction in services is devastating news. I do not want to stand in this place and denigrate anything that HOPE for Autism in North Lanarkshire has done and will continue to do, but it does not provide the range of services that parents can access at present. That is causing great distress.
I was unable to attend a meeting at the one-stop shop on Monday, but my office manager went and came back almost in tears at some of the stories that she heard. She said she found it most moving when parents said that they almost wished that their children had a visible disability, or they wished their children had something else, because then they would get more help and more hope and people would understand what was happening with their children. That heartfelt wish brought home to my office manager how little she knew about autism.
I do not think for one moment that North Lanarkshire Council’s motives are bad. I know that there are funding difficulties all over the UK, but I do not think the council understands what the one-stop shop provided. I have a list of some of the wonderful work that it has done. It ran workshops on visual issues and autism, workshops on sleep strategies by Sleep Scotland, workshops on support for young carers, on autism and diet by NHS Lanarkshire, and on autism and play by a Scottish Autism support team, a workshop on demand avoidant behaviour by the paediatric autism consultancy team, and a safe talk autism awareness training workshop by the Richmond Fellowship. All that will be lost in my area.