Autism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 2:20 pm, 29th March 2018

As everyone here today knows, autism takes many forms and it is sometimes not physically obvious. That is probably why some people are not diagnosed when they are children. However, most are, so I want to talk about one of them.

In the early 1970s, my parents ran a home for children with special needs at Chinley in the Peak district. My superb younger sister Alison Stewart, now Mrs Alison Collier, had just finished school and was living with my mother and father before starting further education. I remember that one of the young boys in the care of my parents was called Frankie. He was autistic. Of course, Alison also helped to look after the children when she could.

Frankie seemed to adore and trust my sister, and Alison, for her part, liked and helped the boy a lot. The problem came when my sister went off to college in Leeds. Alison knew that it would be very upsetting for Frankie, so to help to calm him my mother took him along when she drove Alison to start her university course. Together the three of them went to Alison’s allocated room in the college. They started unpacking her luggage. As they did so, Frankie kept returning Alison’s belongings to her suitcases. He was clearly not accepting the situation and simply did not want things to change. I gather that that is typical behaviour for some people with autism and, of course, Alison had to stay in Leeds.

When my mother returned to Chinley, it was clear that Frankie was very upset. Apparently, he sat in Alison’s room, rocking backwards and forwards in agitation. He was clearly very sad. For her part, Alison knew very well how upset Frankie would be by her departure. She telephoned home and spoke to my parents. Then one of my parents handed the receiver to Frankie, and, for the first time ever, he used the phone. He was desperate to communicate with Alison, and, by a supreme effort, he spoke to her. It was an achievement that my parents always remembered with pride until they died.

For Alison, her experience of caring for and helping Frankie was crucial in deciding her future career. After university, she trained to teach people with additional needs, and until this day she still does just that.

I gather that autistic people do not normally have learning difficulties. Indeed, they are often very intelligent. They can also have skills that are unique. That is certainly the case with the artist Stephen Wiltshire, who suffers from autism. His particular talent is drawing lifelike, accurate representations of cities, sometimes having only seen them briefly. They are amazing pictures, and I suspect that most honourable colleagues have seen them. Stephen studied fine art at the City & Guilds college and was awarded the MBE for services to the art world in 2006. His work is popular all over the world, and he clearly is, or should be, a poster boy for autism.

Autism impacts on people in many ways, yet it has nothing to do with ability to learn and it is certainly not visible. As we have heard today, it is an all-life disorder and there is no cure for it. If there is a common condition among the varieties of autism, it is probably that people have difficulty with social interaction. Often, they do not like change in their lives or routine, like Frankie when my sister Alison left home to go to university. They also feel, and sometimes look, isolated and withdrawn.

As my good friend, my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan—who is in the Chamber rather than drinking piña coladas in Amersham, as was suggested earlier—has said, autism hits about one in a hundred people, so it is pretty common. Thank goodness that it is also a condition that is increasingly being understood, and I hope very much that a debate such as ours today will increase people’s understanding and support for those with autism even more. I will finish there, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that others can speak for longer.