It is a pleasure to follow Mike Wood. I pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan for all her work over the past decade, and I send my best wishes to her and her family at this difficult time. I also congratulate Huw Merriman on starting this debate in her absence.
My interest in autism comes from the many constituents who have had cause to contact me. Some have autism or have a child or family member with autism and have faced a battle to secure the support and access to services they need. Too often, autistic people and their families face significant battles over a long period and across a range of public services, including education, health, housing and the welfare and benefits system. I have supported many families who have had to battle for assessment and diagnosis. Even when they succeed in getting a diagnosis, they often do not receive additional support. I have helped constituents with autism who are struggling to access the benefits they need, because DWP assessment processes are simply not fit for purpose for people with autism. Most heartbreakingly of all, I have supported constituents whose loved ones are in institutions, long-term hospital care or, as in one case, supported housing where their needs are not being met and where they have in fact suffered abuse and neglect.
Autism is not a learning disability and it is not an illness; it is a form of neurodiversity. I commend the work within my own party by Neurodivergent Labour, which is working to ensure policy commitments to create a society that works for everyone living with autism and other forms of neurodiversity. Autistic people often have very special gifts and talents, like the young man who spent time doing work experience in my office after his GCSEs last summer and who completed the most brilliant analysis of crime statistics in my constituency I have ever seen.
My experience is that autistic people are too often being let down across many public services, because schools are often not well enough equipped to meet their needs, because health services are not arranged to be accessible and because there is insufficient supported housing in small community settings, so far too many children and adults with autism are still in long-term hospital accommodation.
We must call out the impact of austerity on school provision for children with autism. Teaching assistants have a vital role in providing additional support in the classroom for children with autism, in helping to shape curriculum content to meet their needs and in helping to explain and mediate to manage their anxiety. Schools that are being forced under this Government to make teaching assistants redundant will run a greater risk of failing their students with autism.
Understanding that challenging behaviour in people with autism is often a symptom of anxiety not a sign of misbehaviour and that the route to addressing it lies in de-escalating and managing fear and anxiety rather than in greater discipline would be transformative in the classroom and prevent many exclusions. The Government have introduced new training in autism awareness for trainee teachers, but there is a huge knowledge gap in the existing workforce that needs to be addressed with properly resourced training for teachers and support staff.
Austerity is also contributing to increased difficulty with diagnosis and in accessing support post diagnosis. Many local authorities are being forced to raise the threshold for support because, across both child and adult social services, they are struggling to discharge even their basic statutory responsibilities. We need additional resources to be put into diagnosis and post-diagnosis support.
It has long been reported that there is a very significant under-diagnosis of autism in women and girls, and there is now emerging evidence that, for far too many women and girls, an autism diagnosis happens only after they have been admitted to hospital due to severe mental illness, whether an eating disorder, depression or an attempt to take their own life. This is simply unacceptable. What practical action is the Minister taking to address under-diagnosis in women and girls and to stop a lack of support on living well with autism resulting in an unnecessary deterioration in mental health?
It is astonishing that, eight years on from Winterbourne View and with “Transforming Care” due to end imminently, we are still living with the scandal of people with autism, a learning disability or both living in long-term hospital accommodation, where far too many of them are still subject to human rights abuses, including prone restraint and neglect.
This Government have failed to implement “Transforming Care”—there is no denying it and no escaping it. Private psychiatric hospitals, which are no place for any young person with autism to live, have been allowed to expand at huge cost to the public purse, while there has been paltry investment in delivering community-based supported housing in which we know people with autism can thrive. Will the Minister commit to renewed funding to deliver “Transforming Care” today?
Finally, my constituents Isabelle and Robin Garnett, whose son Matthew I have mentioned many times in this Chamber following his detention at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton under the Mental Health Act 1983, where he suffered appallingly, have launched a new campaign this week. #HumanToo is a campaign to give visibility to people living with autism in our community and against the abuse and neglect that far too many have suffered. Such a campaign should not be needed, but, shamefully, it is. I ask the Minister to support this campaign, not just with words but with meaningful action to ensure that every person living with autism has access to the support, services and understanding they need to live well and to fulfil their talents and potential in our communities.