I am proud to be a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism and to have served as a governor at a special school in Dudley that had a particular focus on autism and Asperger’s. Ten years have passed since my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan steered the Autism Act 2009 through this House as a private member’s Bill, so it is a good time to reflect on not only all that has been achieved, but all that still needs to be done truly to deliver on the promises of that legislation to improve support and services for people with autism and their families.
In the time available to me, however, I will focus on issues that relate to children with autism. As Stephen Twigg said, nearly five years after the Children and Families Act 2014 became law, progress on implementing the new SEND system is still patchy at best. According to the National Autism Society, 42% of families are being refused education health and care assessments when they are first requested and more than 70% are waiting longer than six months for support at school.
As of January 2018, there were 825 pupils in Dudley’s special schools. That compares with, according to the Department for Education, 119,910 pupils with autistic spectrum disorder in state-funded schools in England. Of those, more than 70% were being educated in mainstream schools, and that has huge implications for teachers and teacher training. That is why it is so important that, since 2016, the new teacher training framework has made supporting children with special educational needs, but particularly autistic children, a core part of the initial teacher training. That training and support needs to be stepped up, so that everybody can be confident that every teacher in every school up and down the country is competent and confident working with children with autism. If teachers do not currently have a child with autism in their class, they will at some point, probably very soon in their career.
The issues of working with, supporting and educating autistic children are very real. As my hon. Friend Huw Merriman suggested, the behaviour of children with autism can be perceived incorrectly. Children on the autistic spectrum can often find themselves being chastised for not behaving in exactly the same way as other pupils. By not behaving in the way that teachers would expect, they can be punished in a way that may be appropriate for the class as a whole, but completely inappropriate given the special educational needs and medical condition of such children.
Government figures show that autistic pupils are four times more likely to be excluded from school compared with pupils who have no special educational needs. Clearly, there is an ongoing debate about the impact of exclusions, but there can be no doubt that the fact that autistic pupils are far more likely to be excluded has a severe impact on the life chances of children whose life chances are already impacted by their medical condition. That effect is most obvious in opportunities for future work and for training.
In many cases, the Government are making good progress on the target of getting a million more disabled people into work. However, the employment gap for people with autism is far wider. Just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work, so it is essential that Jobcentre Plus staff and work coaches properly understand autism and that employers have the full range of support and advice they need to employ autistic people confidently.
I will conclude as I have done in similar debates by reflecting on the words of Natalie, who was one of the parent-governors at the school where I was a governor. Natalie said of her son Will, who attended that school:
“Autism is only a small fraction of our son. It is not everything he is. Will is so much more than the label society has given him. We want him to be accepted, and for him to be accepted equally as a citizen of this country as his peers are.”
That is what all parents want for their children. In this 10th anniversary year of the Autism Act, we have a responsibility to do all that we can to make that wish a reality.