Like many colleagues, I suspect, I started to take a particular interest in how we as a society deal with those who have autism as a result of parents coming to my constituency surgery to describe the challenges that they face, and the obstacles that they must overcome to ensure that their children receive what we all want for our children: a good education, healthcare and so on. What struck me was the strength and determination of those parents. They felt that they had to be strong, determined and sometimes—I am sure that they will not mind me saying this—downright difficult to get the best for their children. We need to ensure that they do not have to be downright difficult to get what their children need, and that we provide for their needs—not necessarily without question, but certainly not in a way that appears obstructive.
Meeting these parents encouraged me to bring forward my ten-minute rule Bill in November 2016. As the motion said, it was a Bill
“to make provision about the access to education, school admissions and support for special educational needs, with particular reference to children diagnosed with autism”.
I noted in my speech that the Equality Act 2010 exists to protect people of all ages from discrimination. It should prevent disabled people from being treated unfairly because of their disability, but in some respects, sadly, there is still a long way to go. I went on to note what an irony it was that the Equality Act was being used to discriminate against children with autism. The National Autistic Society told me at the time that it believed that too many schools did not fully understand their duties towards children and young people with the condition. The law requires them to make reasonable adjustments for disabled and special educational needs pupils so that they may achieve their full potential. “Reasonable adjustments” mean ensuring that a disabled child or one with special needs can do what their non-disabled peers do, and it is important to recognise that while children with autism may behave in a manner that looks like bad behaviour, it is often an expression of anxiety. Unfortunately, as has been said, not all teachers have received specialist training that would enable them to identify it as such.
I had made a note that Department for Education figures show that autistic children are three times more likely to be excluded than children who do not have special educational needs, but the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, said earlier that they were four times more likely to be excluded. I suspect he is even better informed than the report from which I obtained my figure.
After presenting my Bill, I had a meeting with the then Minister, Edward Timpson, who launched a consultation on whether changes to the guidelines were needed. It would be nice to think that whatever changes resulted have cured the problem, and things might have improved, but cases in my Cleethorpes constituency indicate that it is not clear that that has indeed happened.
In that speech that I made 16 months ago, I said:
“There appears to be a loophole in the law that does not consider challenging behaviour linked to a child’s disability as an impairment. If their disability could result in aggressive behaviour towards others in the school, the law on disability discrimination does not help them, and some governing bodies use ‘tendency to physical abuse of others’
as a reason not to meet the needs of an autistic child”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 616, c. 810.]
Sadly, it is then much easier to exclude such children. Of course governors have a duty to others in the school, but exclusion is sometimes the easy option.
This week I received letter from a constituent, who wrote:
“my daughter has been banned from the end of school Prom because she has ‘physically assaulted teachers and students’, no offer of being chaperoned was offered. I feel that the school has let her down by restricting her studies and as a result she is only taking four GCSE’s whereas prior to the school’s action she could have potentially got 5 pass grades.”
As I said, I received that letter only this week, so I have not yet had an opportunity to take the matter up with the school, but the fact that a parent felt it necessary to contact their MP about it rather than discussing it as part of the normal processes does not bode well.
A recent article in my local newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, set out the problems faced by parents of autistic children. It reported:
“Parents have…hit out at what they perceive as local services blaming them for the condition of their children, often being told that they are just poorly behaved, with the parents being told that they would have to go on a parenting course before they could get an autism assessment”.
That is unacceptable. The report continued:
“The main criticism has been levied against CAMHs, the national service commissioned by North East Lincolnshire Council that is meant to provide an autism pathway to help support children…Parents feel that while this service is meant to be available, they have had numerous troubles in trying to access it…Cora Leeson”— a constituent of mine—
“has been campaigning for better autism services in the area for a number of years, and believes that a recent freedom of information request she has received a response to shows that there has been a very low number of people in the area actually receiving a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum.
Her figures showed that from September 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017, there were 36 assessments…carried out by CAMHS…Only seven of these resulted in a diagnosis of autism.”
My aim is not to be critical of North East Lincolnshire Council or the local clinical commissioning group. Improvements have been made, many people are working hard to deliver a better service, and I recognise that there are resource implications. Moreover, society has moved a long way in improving the lives of those with disabilities or special needs. Nevertheless, in my constituency and elsewhere, there is clearly more to be done. A system that is designed—as it has to be—to provide for a vast range of people and needs must have enough flexibility to enable the needs of all to be dealt with. I welcome the opportunity to highlight once again the needs of those with autism.