Autism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 3:04 pm, 29th March 2018

I congratulate Dame Cheryl Gillan on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing the time for it. It is an important debate because, as we have heard, there are several hundred thousand people with autism, and of course millions of people will be in a family with one of those autistic people. It is important to thank Autistica, the National Autistic Society, Ambitious about Autism and all the other charities and organisations in the sector for the work that they do and the support that they give to those with autism. I also wish to recognise the Whole Autism Family in my constituency, which is run by Anne-Marie and Martin Kilgallon. They have two sons with autism and provide amazing support to other families in the area.

It is important to say that, although I am the shadow Mental Health Minister, as we have heard this afternoon autism is not a mental health condition. It is entirely possible for people with autism to have good mental health, but, sadly, for too many that is not always the case. As we heard from Patricia Gibson, it is estimated that between 70% and 80% of autistic people develop mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and four out of 10 children with autism have at least two mental health challenges. Indeed, Autistica highlighted mental health as the top concern facing people with autism and their families.

It is clear that more needs to be done to support the mental health needs of people living with autism. The reduction of the health inequalities experienced by people living with autism is a priority for the NHS mandate for 2017-18. That is of course welcome, but to tackle the disparities it is necessary to ensure access to appropriate mental health care.

The motion rightly highlights diagnosis—the vital first step towards getting support for people with autism. As we heard in the excellent contributions from Robert Halfon and my hon. Friend Mark Tami, getting a diagnosis is the first hurdle that children with autism and their parents need to get over to secure the support and education to which they are entitled. The NICE quality standard on autism recommends a maximum wait of three months from referral to first diagnostic appointment. It is clear that currently that standard is too often breached, and that the waiting time can be gamed by delaying later appointments. Some children have quite literally been left waiting to wait.