Backbench Business - Services for People with Autismbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:28 pm on 21st March 2019.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 2:28 pm, 21st March 2019

Yes, thank you—and I like the shadow Minister, too!

That was interesting, because at that rating you are not that far off the autism spectrum. A lot of people forget that the dividing line is not very big. Many people around that mark will show some traits. For example, if we go to a talk on this matter and find someone very interested in politics, when we ask them what party they support, they say, “I don’t really support a party, but I love analysing election nights, with all the statistics.” I asked such a person to reel off election results in the local area—I was in Coventry at the time on the city council, and they were absolutely able to do that, because that was their special interest. They were very passionately interested in politics, but when they were asked, “Which party are you thinking of joining with all this interest?”, the answer was, “Well, I’m really into that. I’m into the analysis of politics.” That was their special interest.

This is about having a real understanding of autism. What started changing some of my perceptions about people with autism was when I had a volunteer activist who struggled slightly socially in certain scenarios. However, when we were carrying out—of all things—a telephone canvassing session with an automated dialling system, this guy was an absolute star. The rest of us were struggling. The rest of us were finding the whole process very difficult, but he absolutely engaged with it. It was pushing his mind to run slightly faster, and he had ability enough for the whole team. He was given a script, which enabled him to engage brilliantly with people on the phone. That was where his ability came through. In fact, what would normally be seen as a disability became a huge ability. That is why, as a Member of Parliament, I became very keen to challenge perceptions—for example, as has already been touched on in this debate, when someone is seen as naughty. We need to make it clear to employers that, when it comes to people with autism, it is about how they are supported when they enter employment.

I remember doing some work on this with a team when I was deputy leader of Coventry City Council. We looked at why people had left particular jobs—in programming or in engineering. Their skillset was there, their knowledge was there and their strengths were all in that area. What we found was that they were struggling with things such as the lunch room and the office environment—places where they had to interact with people. Everyone else assumes that such interaction is quite simple, but the perceptions of how these people would deal with them were different.

I welcome the fact that support is being provided, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister how much further we can go. We are talking not just about an employer doing a favour, but about an employer sometimes bringing in an absolutely unique talent who may be able to address a job in a way that, bluntly, most of us in this Chamber would struggle with. Sometimes the way an autistic mind works can become a massive advantage in engaging in areas such as IT and tech.

That all means that we need the appropriate levels of support. I do have some concerns over the pressure on higher needs funding in Torbay. I recognise that the Government recently provided some extra funding, but there has been an issue in Torbay. I do not think that we are unique in this, as some of the other smaller coastal unitaries face an issue with the deficit. Traditionally, their funding levels are lower than other areas, which makes it harder for them to deal with such issues. They are paired up with larger—bluntly, more wealthy—counties.

We also need to be clear that this issue is not just about learning, but about having fun. I welcome the fact that support services are available in the Bay. For example, the ASRUS Group meets at the YMCA in Dartmouth Road, Paignton. It is not just about providing education support, but about providing social support to build skills.

This has been a worthwhile debate. I have enjoyed sitting through most of it and listening to the contributions. It will be interesting to hear from both Front-Bench speakers what their thoughts are on this subject. Some people who have absolutely unique talents and some of the greatest minds on this planet may be just on the autistic spectrum, or only just below it. That is where we need to change our perception. It is not about someone with a disability, but about someone who may have a unique ability that we could unlock with the right support.