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Middletown Centre for Autism

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 15th November 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 10:30 am, 15th November 2016

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly is deeply concerned by the failure to provide residential assessments and therapies at the Middletown Centre for Autism; believes that this represents a setback for autism services across the island of Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Education to work with his Executive colleagues and the Minister for Education and Skills to evaluate the development of the Middletown Centre for Autism, to renew their commitment to the original priorities of the Middletown Centre for Autism and ensure that all services are fully funded.

The first thing I want to do in the context of the motion is commend the Minister for his visit to the Middletown Centre for Autism in early August. It was not long after he was appointed Minister and was an early initiative on his part. It is all downhill from here.


I am only joking. I genuinely want to commend the Minister for visiting the Middletown centre of excellence for autism.

The Middletown centre, most Members will know, is a joint initiative by the Department of Education and the Department of Education and Skills, the two Departments for education on this island. It was opened in March 2007 and is funded by the two Departments on a 50:50 basis. Its key objective is to deliver educational services for children with some of the most complex forms of autism. The centre provides support for those who have been referred by the Education Authority or by the Department in the Twenty-six Counties — I will say that, if nobody else says it.

I also want to point out that the Middletown centre provides an extensive programme of training and research for parents and professionals. I am very mindful of the stress and pressure that parents feel. Parents of children with autism are very often under immense stress and need a lot of support and respite.

I want to touch briefly on the prevalence of autism in our society. It is generally known that the levels of autism in schoolchildren have more than doubled in the last seven years — I think that the correct figure might be 4,000 children with autism in the North alone — and those children have special educational needs. That obviously presents a very challenging scenario for educationalists, parents and Departments. I will go back to very start and remind Members that autism is a developmental disability that influences a person's ability to communicate and relate to other people as well as affecting how they make sense of the world. Of course, it is a spectrum. Some children and young people will lead quite independent lives, and others will need a lot of support throughout their lives.

Before I return specifically to the Middletown centre, I want to say that, under the Autism Act 2011, the Department of Health leads on the development, implementation, monitoring and reporting of a cross-departmental autism strategy and publishes figures that are extracted from school census data collected by the Department of Education. During the debate, I invite the Minister to respond to questions from the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Autism NI via their jointly published report, 'Broken Promises', which reflects on the effectiveness of the Act. Indeed, I tabled a question in June inviting the Minister to detail his Department's response to the 'Broken Promises' report, and the Minister could, in his response, perhaps provide some elaboration on, for example, whether there are plans in the Department of Education for specific autism training for teachers, staff, classroom assistants, other education professionals and youth workers. That is the type of recommendation that is included in the 'Broken Promises' report that was initiated by NAS and Autism NI.

The Middletown centre has passed all its tests with flying colours. Joint inspection reports always refer to the exceptional standard of courses and support services that are delivered in the centre, in a child's home and in school settings. The Middletown centre is a very important facility. The Minister has previously pointed out that the focus now appears to be on the delivery of outreach services and that, as the centre has evolved, that is where the focus now appears to lie, but the motion questions that and the residential aspect of the centre, which seems to have been abandoned. Indeed, the Minister acknowledged in previous ministerial statements that residential services would be of value to children and young people in Middletown. The media have reported widely on the abandonment of the residential services aspect of the Middletown centre, and I am trying to get to the bottom of that in the motion.

My colleagues, including Jennifer McCann and Catherine Seeley, and I are trying to get to the bottom of the original concept that residential services would be delivered at Middletown and of the idea that there would be a change, an evolution or a development, and we want to know why there has been a shift in that thinking. I asked a question in the Assembly after the North/South Ministerial Council statement on 3 October regarding the abandonment of residential services. I go back to the point that the original concept of the Middletown centre was that it would provide individual residential support and that pupils between the ages of 11 and 19 would receive appropriate educational interventions for finite time periods, with anticipated educational benefits. That is our concern, and it is reflected strongly in the wording of the motion. However, in the same breath, I want to acknowledge that I detect from the Minister and his Department a commitment to Middletown and to working with the Department of Education and Skills into the future. I wish the Minister and his Department well in that.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker, but I did not realise that I was down to speak on this, but, having been called on, I will take the opportunity to say something. I was going to make an intervention when Mr McElduff was speaking, but I thought better of it. Now that you have called me, I have the opportunity to put the question to the Minister directly.

The Middletown centre is delivering and, according to all the reports, meeting expectations. However, when the centre was first mooted, it was asked — the question remains for the Minister, although he has inherited the issues and will, I suspect, have to give a lot of careful thought to them — whether Middletown was the best place for this type of provision. There are those who told me, quite vociferously, that it was not the proper place and that the facility should have been more central and accessible to the population, rather than on the edge of the border. We accept that it was the former, former Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane — notorious for making some crazy decisions — who made the decision to put it where it was. We queried it at the time, so we are not coming in late and saying, as an afterthought, that a different location would have been better. However —

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way; I appreciate that. Does the Member agree that, given that this is an area of cross-border cooperation, it makes sense that the centre is located close to the border?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Thank you. The fact that it was on the border was the problem for some of us. We believe that the provision is basically for the people of Northern Ireland. I understand that there are those from the other side of the border who use it, but that raises another question: who is financing it? If it is as you say, is it financed both by the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland? No doubt the Minister will deal with that, and the Member, when she gets up to speak, will deal with it also. Having said that, the provision is essential and important, and it seems to me, from the reports I have heard, that it is fit for purpose and delivering. That is the issue we need to dwell on today.

I listened to Mr McElduff. He was not hypercritical of the Minister; as a matter of fact, he started off very well, but then he warned him that it was all downhill from then on. It was not too bad: the hill did not seem to be that steep. The Sinn Féin motion, although it might seem to start off with criticism of the Minister, veers away from that. Mr McElduff has gone some distance today to curb that criticism, and it has not been too sharp. We as a party will not vote against the motion —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Not vote for the motion.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Yes, I thought I said that. We will not be voting for the motion because we believe that too many things have been left out of it and it does attack the Minister to some degree, although he is well used to that and it would be like water off a duck's back.

That would not annoy him — not the bit that annoys us. We believe that the motion misses the mark. I will stop there, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP 10:45 am, 15th November 2016

I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate as the Ulster Unionist Party's education spokesperson. Fundamentally, at the heart of the motion, we find a very important issue being brought to the House, and that is to ensure that the healthcare, social and educational needs of young people with autism and their families in Northern Ireland are met. With that in mind, we commend the motion.

This is an issue that, in fact, since 2011, the Executive have had a statutory duty to tackle under the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 via the auspices of the autism strategy, yet, in June 2016, we found ourselves reading the report, which the proposer mentioned, from the National Autistic Society and Autism NI, indicating that, despite all the promises and hype, services are getting worse rather than better. How can it be, five years after the implementation of the Autism Act, that services for those with the condition are actually getting worse, promises are unfulfilled, duties are unmet and young people have been failed? I fear that that is a phrase that we will repeat all too often in the coming years. Indeed, it is not for lack of information that these failures are occurring. In fact, research and studies such as those that go on in Middletown have fed into what is a rich body of knowledge around many of the issues that affect those with the condition.

One of the major areas of concern amongst families of children with autism is that diagnosis is not early enough to make the most of support and advice. A growing body of evidence shows that early intervention can improve social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorders. At the beginning of 2016, it was reported that, in the Belfast Trust area, where autism is most prevalent, children are waiting up to 20 months to receive a diagnosis. That equates roughly to just under two full school years. I, personally, find this absolutely unacceptable, especially considering that it is recommended that a child should wait no more than 13 weeks for diagnosis. Indeed, in the Northern Trust, by August 2016, 58% of children on the waiting list had been waiting for 13 weeks or longer. This was even after the Minister of Health had announced a £2 million investment in autism, which had been available to trusts since 1 April 2016. Whatever the Executive are doing, it is simply not working.

The impact is then felt on the children themselves and their families. Without a statement of diagnosis, children cannot receive the care packages or specialist education that they need. Much of the problem relates to the fact that future estimates of need are turning out to be completely inaccurate. I understand that the rates of children being diagnosed have quadrupled since 2002. It is therefore very unfortunate that many of the services that are provided by centres such as Middletown are accessed much later than is necessary for maximum impact on young people and the quality of their lives.

By all accounts, the Middletown Centre for Autism provides an excellent service and plays a vital role in meeting the needs of children with autism in Northern Ireland. It has outstanding inspection reports. Its research is considered world class. After speaking to many parents, teachers and school principals who have accessed its training, I know that it makes an invaluable difference to the lives of those who have the privilege of availing themselves of the service. One parent recently told me that, once you have understanding and awareness, you eliminate the stigma that is associated with autism. That is something that we need to remember now and in the future. In all walks of life and all Departments, we need to eliminate the stigma that is associated with autism and increase awareness and understanding.

It is unfortunate that the funding model for the Middletown centre is dependent on a different country, which is at the mercy of its own electorate, financial pressures and so on. Unfortunately, that is why we are in the position that we are in at the moment. The Middletown Centre for Autism is funded on a 50:50 basis, as we all know, between the Department of Education here and the Department of Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, in 2009, the then Department of Education and Science in the Republic said that it could not fund the expansion of Middletown because of financial pressures. Despite the then Minister of Education's protestations, the expansion plans for a residential service never came to fruition.

Therefore, although we support the motion in principle, the Minister will have to secure agreement —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

This will get her an extra minute. The Member indicated, particularly from parental feedback, the invaluable service that Middletown provides. It is a model largely of outreach and direct engagement with parents. In the light of that, will she indicate why she is commending a motion — I appreciate the general remarks made about autism — that would shift Middletown away from being an outreach model towards being a residential model? That would take the centre in the wrong direction for dealing with autism.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for the extra minute and for the opportunity to give my reasons. Outreach is worth so much to people across Northern Ireland, but it has been said to me that it would be useful if teenagers were to have the opportunity to stay over for an assessment. You are assessing children during school days, but they sometimes need to be assessed in the evening time. It has been said to me that that might be useful as well.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the signatories to the motion for bringing the issue of the Middletown Centre for Autism to the House today.

The Middletown Centre for Autism is a shining light for cross-border cooperation. It is one of the success stories of joined-up government on the island, and it should be a lesson —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

For the sake of Hansard, will you pull your mic up? Thank you.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

We are in danger of hearing you.


Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Ha ha.


It should be a lesson to all involved in politics on this island that, when we set our political differences aside, we really can make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society. The Middletown Centre for Autism was established in 2007 in response to the joint task force established in 2001 by the Department of Education here and the now Department of Education and Skills in Dublin. It has been, and continues to be, an outstanding success. During 2012, and again earlier this year, a joint North/South independent and rigorous inspection found the quality of work and services on offer at Middletown to be outstanding.

I welcome today's debate, but I am a little perplexed by the motion. Although the vision in 2000-01 up to 2007 was for a centre with residential placement at Middletown for five weeks, five days a week, offering intensive learning and support, thinking has moved on. Researchers, academics and professional experts the world over since then have cautioned against such a short intervention. In fact, they now recommend a whole-life support approach, one that embraces the needs of children at home, in their school and in their community. Instead of working with one child for a short period, they recommend working with the family and the whole school, including teachers, staff and dinner ladies.

The Middletown Centre for Autism is at the heart of my constituency. I know it well, and I know how it works. I visited it just last week. The motion contradicts what all the experts are saying works and what should happen. The original vision for Middletown included a residential element, but research, time and professional opinion have moved on. All the expert advice and thinking points to the current model adopted by the centre as being the one that works best. I want to see the model and, indeed, Middletown grow and expand.

In 2009, when the global economy went into free fall, the Irish Government and the Executive paused the then planned capital expansion for the residential proposals. The centre and its sponsoring Departments engaged experts to review the systems, proposals and programmes. What came out of that review has been an outstanding success.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I apologise for any facetious remarks that I made earlier, seeing as he now seems to be agreeing with me.

Does he agree that one of the advantages of the different model that has been put in place, the one that has been borne out in time, is that, because the workers deal with children in their own school, there has also been a positive spin-off for the schools? Schools that may not have a particular experience of autism beyond the family of the autistic pupil involved have gained a much greater understanding of autism, and that has prepared them a lot better for having any other children who are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. The current system therefore has an unforeseen benefit.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

The evidence shows that it has to work for the support network or it will not work for the child.

In 2009, when the global economy went into free fall, the Irish Government and the Executive paused the planned capital expansion for the residential proposals. The centre and its sponsoring Departments engaged with experts to review their systems, proposals and programmes, and what came out of the review has been an outstanding success, as I have already said. The centre developed a model that was more person-centred, benefiting from the multiplier effect of being more focused in the school and in the home, and in 2012 there was a vision for a phased expansion plan for the centre. The Education Ministers at the time, John O'Dowd MLA and Ruairi Quinn TD, gave the green light to an expansion of the services delivered by the centre with a focus on ensuring a sustainable future.

The original vision proposed a five-week intensive residential programme, whereas now a 52-week programme supporting our young people from the age of three to 19 is on offer. The key element of the current approach is to mainstream the support to coordinate a wrap-around service where our young people are getting support in their homes, schools and in their community. It is a transdisciplinary service, including speech, behavioural and educational support. The approach adopted recognises that the support has to work for the group; otherwise, it will not work for the child.

The current model is working above and beyond what was originally envisaged. The recent inspection report said that it offers highly individualised transdisciplinary support for autism to children and young people. It points to evidence that the work being done is impacting significantly on the educational and life experience of referred pupils, their teachers and parents. The original vision was to support 140 cases per year and yet, since 2007, the centre has trained and supported 19,395 parents and 37,172 education and health professional across the island. That is an outstanding achievement.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude his remarks.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

If any criticism can be made of Middletown, it is maybe that it does not tell its story well enough.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I am always glad to discuss Middletown in the House, even on the back of a poorly worded motion, such as this one. I will put Lord Morrow out of his misery straight away: funding for Middletown is 50:50 between the two Governments. On that basis, if you wanted to put it somewhere central it would probably be further south than it is now because it covers the whole of the Republic, as well as us, so Middletown is, I think, a very good location.

We have various problems with the motion. In fact, the only bit that we approve of is the last few words:

"ensure that all services are fully funded."

If Middletown was funded more adequately, we would get a return on it that would be equal to any funding that we provide because it does such terrific work, as others have said.

There is a disparity between what the motion calls for and what would be best for the continuing development of Middletown. Others have referred to the residential aspect. The original idea of Middletown, from memory, was that it would offer five-week residential courses for about 140 or 150 children per annum. That had drawbacks because of the disturbance involved with the children, for a start, and the fact that five weeks is not really long enough. The model that it has developed allows them to, in our case, look after up to 64 children, and it does that through schools, homes and the community in a mainstream way. The treatment and assessment that it provides can last up to a year. So, it is either a year for 64 children or five weeks for 150; the experts in this field are in no doubt which is the better option.

The motion calls for another evaluation. The last evaluation report was in September, just passed, and it was outstanding. The one in 2012 said the same thing — outstanding. These people really deliver value for money, and the training that they provide for teachers and parents across the island, and the effect that they have on the children they are allowed to concentrate on, is recognised widely. This is a really good scheme and a really good centre. Frankly, they do not want residential down there; it would divert them from what they think is the best option for them.

In terms of ensuring that they are fully funded, their budget was set at £2·174 million in 2012 and that has not been revised. I suppose you could give thanks that it has not been cut again. It is a piffling amount given what they do and the expertise that is required and which they provide. It should have been reviewed at least in line with inflation over those years. The only thing that they did get was £90,000 in one of the recent monitoring rounds to, frankly, avert a crisis in wages, which was what was happening.

I have no doubt that, if the House does nothing else today but ask the Minister to ensure that the service is fully funded, that would be a step forward. Fully funded means more than the £2·174 million per year that was set almost five years ago, Minister, but that is a matter for you.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP 11:00 am, 15th November 2016

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that it is astonishing that no record is kept by the Department of Education as to which teachers are trained, and how many? Maybe the Minister could look at that too so that we can identify any gaps across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank Mrs Overend. I was not aware that there is no record kept, in fact I am a bit surprised by that. Surely a record must be kept in the schools in question, mostly special schools? I have spoken to the people at Harberton School in my area and they think that this service is invaluable. The way in which it is being delivered now is not really open to question.

The motion kind of gives us a bit of a problem. We decided yesterday that we would probably support it, but the more I look at it, the more I wonder what it is that we are supporting. I cannot help thinking that it is an education motion and that, perhaps, Sinn Féin might wish that it had done its homework, because the way it is worded does not add up.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Yes, certainly.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Does the Member agree that it is not about whether we support Middletown, which is a fantastic facility, but it is the proposal to go back to residential provision that is the issue?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I am sure that I made the point about the notion that you would go back to the original priorities. The original priorities are to give children who are on the spectrum the very best treatment, assessment and therapy that we can provide. I will wait to hear if anybody can suggest a better way than what Middletown is doing at the moment, except that if you give them 50% more money, Minister, they will do 50% better and probably look after 50% more teachers, children and parents. You probably get the drift of what I think about the motion by now.


I will reserve judgement. Possibly, it will not get pushed to a vote; that would probably be the best thing.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

I want to contribute to the debate in a positive manner just as some other Members have, and I agree with most of what Mr Lunn said. The motion is quite negatively framed, but I want to contribute in a positive manner. I praise Middletown on the work that it does which is very valuable to the children — some of whom have very complex forms of autism — and their parents.

I am confident that the Department of Education and the Minister are clearly committed to meeting the needs of children and young people with autism. This manifests itself through a range of different methods, including mainstream provision, learning support centres attached to mainstream schools, and the special schools provision. The Department of Education also provides funding to the Middletown Centre for Autism and has established it and enabled it to expand its programme of direct support and intervention to children with complex autism, who are referred by the Education Authority, and provide professional and parental training and research services. Minister Weir visited the school in August this year, just three months into his appointment, to look around the centre and assure management and staff of his support.

I said earlier that I agree with Mr Lunn's comments. I am disappointed at the tone of the motion. It uses language such as, "'deeply concerned", "failure" and "setback for autism services" and this is simply not accurate. It calls for residential assessments and, like others, I agree that this is not necessarily the best option. The research shows that children are best placed at home with their parents or carers, who have benefited from the centre's training.

It talks about a renewed commitment to the centre's original priorities, which are as follows:

"The Middletown Centre for Autism aims to support the promotion of excellence in the development and coordination of education services to children and young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders."

That support does not always need to come from residential services. As I said, I believe that that is best placed with parents and carers. After the launch of the Northern Ireland Executive's autism strategy and action plan, the Middletown Centre for Autism, in conjunction with the Education Authority, is delivering training programmes for teachers, education professionals, youth workers and parents, helping to provide effective support for children with autism. Formal arrangements are also in place for collaborative working between the Department of Health and the Department of Education.

The Middletown Centre for Autism is, right now, a fantastic resource and facility for young people. The centre provides an extensive training programme for parents, schools and a range of professionals, offering opportunities to develop knowledge, skills and safe practices for education provision for children and young people with autism. The centre's data shows that, up to April 2016, almost 15,000 parents and 17,000 professionals in the Republic of Ireland and 4,500 parents and almost 20,000 professionals in Northern Ireland attended the centre's training events, which are held in venues across both countries. The latest inspection report, which was referred to, could not be more full of praise for the leadership in the school. Equipping people to deal with autism is a vital and necessary part of allowing individuals with ASD and their carers to get the most out of life. That is what the Middletown Centre for Autism seeks to do.

I am disappointed that the motion is framed negatively. As Lord Morrow rightly said, we will be voting it down today.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I thank my colleague Barry McElduff for proposing the motion. We are trying to add to what is happening at Middletown. We are not saying that its direction is wrong or anything else but are just trying to add the residential part of it.

The passing of the Autism Act 2011 was the result of a long campaign. Like me, many other Members were here at the time when individuals, parents and organisations representing people with autism fought long and hard in that campaign to get the Act passed. The Act was followed by the launch of an autism strategy and action plan. For children and adults who have autism or for parents whose children are autistic, it pointed the way towards the provision of improved support and services. Unfortunately, that was not the experience of many of those people.

Someone already mentioned some of the issues in 'Broken Promises', in which Autism NI and the National Autistic Society called for action now to ensure that that better quality of life for autistic people and their families is now delivered. There are a lot of people — I meet them day and daily in my constituency — who still feel that those services and access to them are not properly resourced in the way that they should be. That is particularly true of waiting times for children's assessments. I raised that issue at the Education Committee last week when the Department was in. There are still areas where people are waiting for up to 20 months for a child's assessment. That child cannot receive help in school until the assessment is carried out, which has a major impact on that child's ability to learn and future attainment levels. We really need to look at some of those issues as well.

Statistics show that some children can wait that length of time. Many families find it extremely difficult to cope with the practical and emotional problems that caring for someone with autism brings, and they often feel isolated and overwhelmed. There is a real need for those support services and adequate provision that can be easily accessed in order to help them.

I work with a number of people in my constituency in the Butterfly support group, which is a group of parents of children with autism who came together to support and encourage each other. There are a lot of self-help groups out there that exist on donations and very small amounts of funding. They do activities with children and other parents. We need to look again at helping those groups and resourcing them better.

The Middletown centre, as has already been said, provides intensive assessment and learning support for children and young people with complex autism who experience difficulties in their educational setting. It also provides training to education professionals and parents of children who have autism, alongside different areas of research and information. People have already mentioned that it is an all-island facility that is jointly funded by the Executive and the Government in the South. The recent evaluation report said that the quality of leadership and management at the centre was outstanding, and that the services provided by the centre had a significant impact on the education and experiences not just of the pupils but of staff and parents.

There is no doubt, and I do not think that anybody is saying that it is not providing an excellent service. The reality is that outreach provision is a much-needed service. Like many here, I can remember people, at the time when this idea was being developed, wanting the services to be kept in local communities and schools that were handy for parents. There was also a small group of people who needed that residential facility — perhaps those who had more complex needs. What we are trying to do is to build and support that.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I hope that people see that that is the way the motion is meant to be. It is about the added value of Middletown, and is certainly not a criticism of what is happening there at the moment.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I was a member of the all-party group on autism during the last Assembly term, and now have the privilege of being the chair of the group. During the last number of years, I have gained an insight into how autism affects people and their families, the impact that it has and how overwhelming it can be for individuals and their loved ones. Although we have a broad understanding, the full impact of living with autism can only truly be felt by those who are directly living with the condition.

By definition, each case is completely individual, and no matter what strategy is arrived at, there will be no one-size-fits-all solution to this. In dealing with autism, it is vital that the individual is at the centre of the approach, and people with autism must receive the highest-quality education services, tailored to their individual needs, in order to achieve the best possible outcome. In doing so we will ensure that we are equipping those people with the appropriate life skills that are required to realise their educational achievements, access employment and, of course, fulfil their individual potential.

Northern Ireland has the highest incidence of autism diagnosis in the United Kingdom at 2·3%. The UK average is 1%. With more than double the national average, we in Northern Ireland should be approaching autism in a strategic and long-term manner to future-proof our services and ensure that those already in the system have access to the best possible ways to suitably manage their needs.

The Middletown Centre for Autism was established in 2007, when increasing numbers of children were being educated outside of Northern Ireland due to the severity of their ASD-associated behavioural issues. Since then, around 30 new pupils each year have availed themselves of the centre's excellent facilities and services. With two joint inspection reports noting the exceptional services delivered and the positive outcomes for its users, in school and at home, the work of the centre and its management must be congratulated.

The original model for the centre was intended to be a residential scheme. Over the years, this has developed into being more outreach in nature. My issue with the motion is the focus on the residential element of the centre. As I mentioned at the outset, autism is entirely individual and each case is very different. That said, one of the defining characteristics is the need for routine and the dislike of change. I am concerned that any enforced change of routine may actually be detrimental to the development and progress of people with autism and may, in fact, set back any progress.

I am further concerned that there may be an element of institutionalism with the residential treatment for autism, and I feel that this is not an approach that is necessarily appropriate. My view is that, through engaging with people in their own educational environment and supporting their families and teaching staff, we may be able to achieve better outcomes.

I am conscious that there is a lack of evidence to support the need for, or the implied success of, any proposed residential facility. I am aware that the Minister visited the centre during the summer, and the view among the professionals, parents and children using the facility was that outreach was the preferred option. The reality is that those are the voices that we need to listen to.

In closing, there is no doubt that we can do better in looking at the provision for autism. Whilst the Middletown model is working well and is achieving results, it is not providing what it was originally designed to do. I therefore believe that the current provision could be reviewed in order to ensure the best possible outcomes for service users. It must be recognised that we must attain good value for money whilst achieving that. We have significant educational, clinical and academic resources to draw on in reviewing the service, not to mention a vast number of voluntary and charity partners, such as Autism NI and the National Autistic Society. The key to reviewing this type of service is listening to those who are benefiting from it and using their experience to shape the future of autism services for Northern Ireland and through joint working with the Republic of Ireland.

The all-party group wishes the Minister of Education every success in his cross-border working with the Minister for Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland. I look forward to seeing the results for the benefit of not only those dealing with autism today but for any future services. Whilst I and my party will not be supporting the motion today, I welcome the recent meetings that the Education Minister, in particular, and, indeed, the Health Minister, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have had with —

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

— Autism NI and members of the APG.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Meeting the needs of young people with autism and their families is clearly something that we should all support. In the 14 years since the project at Middletown was announced, and in the five years since the implementation of the Autism Act, the prevalence of autism diagnosis in Northern Ireland has greatly increased but, unfortunately, the percentage of children helped by specialist assessment has declined dramatically.

It is concerning that, in the Programme for Government consultation paper, there appears to be only minimal provision made for special needs. Autism is not mentioned once in the entire draft Programme for Government, and special needs is mentioned only three times in the 200-page document and is never actually referred to in the list of actions. On page 45, it states:

"outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs also require additional focus if those outcomes are also to improve."

Yet, this is not referenced again under the title, "What will we do?". While the Executive state the obvious problem, I hope that they have the skills and the inclination to take action.

Recently, we debated the partnerships between schools and allied professionals in the health and social care sector. That is also crucial when considering the centre for autism. It must provide a linked-up, integrated service, as addressing health and social care needs equips all children to make the most of educational opportunities.

Many years ago, it was suggested that health visitors be equipped to identify autistic tendencies as early as the two-year assessment as that could enable support to be tailored for children at a very early age. Like most diagnoses, early diagnosis is advantageous in creating positive outcomes. My colleague Sandra Overend already covered the issues that young people with autism face during diagnosis, including increased waiting times as a result of the failure to properly plan for the number of children diagnosed.

Equally stressful, however, can be the other end of the education system where young adults with autism must make the transition to life as a school leaver. Learning does not stop for young people at 19. In a report by the Committee for Employment and Learning, published in 2016, areas of concern documented included a real lack of suitable provision for individuals during the transition stage and the fact that there are problems in the process that hamper a smooth transition, such as the lack of information. One idea that was considered was extending the statement of educational need to the age of 25. However, the report quite rightly stated that the same problem would present at 25. A substantive, tailored approach to special educational needs education must therefore be developed for the whole life of people with autism.

It is important to ensure that the Middletown Centre for Autism has its capacity expanded. That will require serious investment and expansion. Although we support the motion, we must not assume that that is the only way in which to provide autism services. We must continue to work with children, parents, teachers and other bodies to ensure that services for those with autism and related conditions continue to improve. Together with the Middletown centre, that will have significant benefits for those with the condition and for society as a whole.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the matter. Autism, ADHD and Asperger's syndrome are all conditions that we hear about so often. I have sat with mums, dads and carers and have had them literally cry and long for some help and assistance for their children and other young people who present with those needs. The message is very clear: each child is different and each child presents with different needs when diagnosed with autism.

I commend the Minister on his visit to the centre in Middletown to see the facilities there at first hand. It is my intention to visit the centre in the not-too-distant future. Following his visit, I note that the Minister made a very clear statement in which he said that it is clear what a positive impact the services provided by the centre are having on pupils, parents and teachers. Those are the three key stakeholders in the whole debate.

Additional needs facilities and education provision are key focus areas for me in my term in the Assembly. During my time as a councillor, I was lobbied by many families, who contacted me to raise concerns about statementing and diagnosis. In the main, though, they contacted me about early intervention and ensuring that their child gets the best possible intervention at the earliest possible age.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I know that she is a member of the all-party group on autism as well. Does she agree with me that the Assembly, on a cross-departmental basis, needs to look at 'Broken Promises', the report published by the two main autism charities? Does she also agree that more needs to be done on a cross-departmental basis to ensure the implementation of the Autism Act?

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Absolutely, and I commend the Member for her role on the all-party group. The title of 'Broken Promises' says it all, and I was very encouraged by the Minister recently meeting the group to ensure its implementation. The Education Committee is a great arena in which to raise those issues, and you are 100% right about the need to ensure a working together by the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Department for the Economy and the Department of Justice to help these children and young people realise their full potential.

The motion is too specific and does not address the areas of priority need. Residential has its place, but I do not believe that, on balance, it is a methodology that professionals necessarily believe is best placed to address need. A study has shown that autism affected 2·3% of the school population in 2015-16, which is a rise of 1·1% on the 2009-2010 figures. I suggest that that is down to a better understanding of the symptoms and awareness of the illness. However, that increase obviously means a need for increased provision and finance to deal with it. It is very clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Previously, additional needs children were potentially labelled as disruptive or, in some instances, slow learners and were often left to their own devices. I am really encouraged by the fact that the Middletown centre is training and really homing in on these young people to try to help them realise their full potential.

I am very encouraged by the training programme that they have in place. I note with admiration the two joint inspection reports that state very clearly that Middletown centre delivers services to an exceptional standard, and that has affected the lives of children in school and at home. My only hesitation is that, as the numbers presenting with the condition increase, it is vital that we resource it in that way. I am not going to rehearse it, but I do not believe that residential is the way to deal with these young people. To take them out of their own surroundings is somewhat wrong, and I do not think that they would be able to cope with it.

It is vital that we listen to parents and ensure that they have feed-in, and I believe that Middletown is doing that in an exceptional way. The real issue with additional needs is not the educational evaluation of the children but the medical assessment times, which are causing unnecessary delays to treatment. I believe that this, alongside some of the Education Authority's processes for dealing with additional needs, is not best placed. I know that the Minister has committed to looking at those processes and ensuring that they are addressed.

The centre provides wide-ranging training programmes for parents and schools. It has also done significant research on sensory processing and has provided advice and guidance and online resources. I support a review of the current operation and educational offering on an ongoing basis. We can never be complacent or sit back in the belief that we have cracked this. This is a fluid, ever-changing process —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

— and I know that the Minister will continue to work to this end.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I offer apologies from Colin McGrath, our education spokesperson, as he cannot be here for today's debate, and double apologies from him that I have to speak instead of him. While not overly familiar with the situation or, indeed, the history of Middletown — I would like to learn more and would like to see what is happening there — I am all too familiar, as, I am sure, are most of us in the Chamber, with the many challenges facing those with autism and their families every day.

Mrs Overend elaborated most on those challenges and the huge frustrations and difficulties that they cause. Children have to wait a completely unacceptable time for diagnosis, and, sadly, that seems to set the trend for what they can expect from services and statutory service providers for the rest of their lives — not a lot.

It seems to me that the Middletown motion just about typifies service delivery, or lack of it, for people with autism. We have a great vision and the promise of better things to come. I think of the Autism Act, but, ultimately, it does not materialise. Reading into it more and listening to today's debate, it is hard to understand the wisdom or rationale of the motion, given that it seems to fly in the face of what the experts tell us about residential provision. If anything, rather than assist people with autism, the motion almost misleads and manipulates them. I echo Mr Lunn's sentiments that we want to see the centre, and, indeed, all autism services, fully and adequately funded.

It is clear from reading the information pack that what the centre does, it does very well, outstandingly well, in fact, according to an inspection this year. Transdisciplinary support has expanded due to additional staffing, and staff working with pupils, schools and parents have developed their extensive and holistic special skills and are highly valued. That leads to improved outcomes for the pupils at home and at school. Facilities have improved, and investment has been made to upgrade the ICT infrastructure.

With regard to today's debate, though, I am slightly concerned at the tone used by Lord Morrow in relation to North/South cross-border projects. We need to see more North/South collaboration across a wide range of issues. Nowhere is this collaboration more essential than in the area of health, where enhanced relationships between jurisdictions on this island will not just save a lot of money but will save a lot of lives. I would be a bit more concerned about his remarks if they were not at odds with the actions of some of his party colleagues when they were Health Ministers in the not-too-distant past.

We will not be supporting the motion, but we do support those people working in the centre and elsewhere to meet the needs of people and their families who are living with autism. We need to work for them and with them to ensure more funding and better services for autism. While we will be voting with the Minister on this occasion, he cannot ignore that much of what his Department does in relation to autism is not up to scratch.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 11:30 am, 15th November 2016

I declare an interest because I live with autism. Before I came to speak today, I went back to the people who I have been working with for the past year to ask them about their opinion on this. In February this year, my predecessor, Kieran McCarthy, submitted my petition that was signed by over 8,500 people calling for better autism support and services from Health and Education. Health, as we know, said at that stage that there would be an extra £2 million a year and that there would be further recruitment of staff to bring down waiting times. That is happening, and we are very grateful for that. We know that the Education Minister went out to see Middletown. Thank you very much for that. With regard to schools, the report card reads, "Could do better". I say that because we are still waiting to see the support and help for students when they get their diagnosis from Health and go back into the education system.

When I spoke to parents who confirmed that they had access to Middletown services, they could not be more glowing in their praise of Middletown. They were very clear that the help that they received as parents, that their children received and that teachers received in their training was fantastic and second to none. That has been borne out by the many reports that have been provided to us in relation to the motion. Some parents did say to me, "What is Middletown? What is this?". They were not aware of it. Indeed, there were some teachers who did not know the referral process. When I say that I mark the report card as "Could do better", that is what I mean. There are many people whose children end up having a diagnosis and then wait an extraordinary amount of time for support systems to be put in place in schools.

That is why I support the Middletown approach for the whole-school ASD-competent environment. Middletown can go into schools. It can develop the full school system to ensure that, as others have said, the school environment is more appropriate for children with ASD. We have teachers trained, the parents are given support and the children themselves are given support. The whole school network, whether that is classroom assistants, caretakers or cleaners, is involved in it. This is a more sustainable approach to helping children with ASD in Northern Ireland than residential care. However, I do say that each child is an individual, and, in some cases, residential care is important. For some girls in particular who are not diagnosed until much later, perhaps residential care may suit them. It is not for everyone, and it is not the full solution, but, if we do away with residential services completely, what will we do for those young people who require it? I am bit more cautious than others because I live with autism and I understand, in the family environment, exactly the difficulties that can happen.

I also believe that Middletown should be fully funded to support everybody who is involved in the educational environment. I say that because of my experience. In September, for instance, in my constituency, the Education Authority's transport department had to do a very quick change in transport provision on day one because a taxi firm pulled out. It happened to be that the school and the pupils who were affected by that change were children with autism from Killard special needs school. That change was handled very quickly. There was transport in place so that the children got home, but the change caused such a detrimental effect to the children that one child could not go back to school for a week and the others had meltdowns when they went home. I think that Middletown should be invested in to provide training, not just for teachers and the school estate, but for the Education Authority and for departmental officials because an understanding wholly and completely of the effects that change can have on children with autism would be very welcome by parents so that people could understand exactly the impact that it can have.

My colleague mentioned teacher-training records. I have written to the Minister, and, in the responses that have come back, he has confirmed that the Education Authority or schools will hold training records. On behalf of parents, I ask this: can we please have something better? Can we have a more structured approach to make sure that teachers are afforded the time and the ability to go to appropriate training, perhaps provided by Middletown? Can the Minister look at the cross-departmental autism strategy? The strategy has been extended to 2017, so now is the time to start thinking about the next time. Middletown should absolutely be funded to its full ability, but Middletown, Autism NI, the National Autistic Society, parents and young people themselves should all be talked to about the development of the next cross-departmental autism strategy —

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

— to see how we can improve services and make sure that funding is fully available.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Before I call Mr Steven Agnew, I have to inform the Member that he has only three minutes.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many issues affect families who have experience of autism: the time it takes to get a diagnosis; support after diagnosis; support in schools; support at home; and wider public awareness. In all my time of working on issues relating to autism and other special educational needs, the issue that the motion seeks to address has not come up. I have not heard anything in today's debate that compels me to believe that this is the pressing issue in autism services.

As many others highlighted — I will not go into too much detail because it has been said — the Middletown centre does excellent work. What I have not heard is evidence that it somehow needs to go back to an original purpose. I am not entirely sure why it has evolved in the way that it has; maybe the Minister will talk to that. It seems to me to be in line with current thinking across a range of health issues, which is that we do more outreach, more work in communities and go out to families rather than take this residential approach, although I am minded of Kellie Armstrong's comments, which seem to give some credit to that approach. However, at a time when, across our health estate, we are looking to move more towards community-based services, this seems to move in the opposite direction. In the absence of evidence that that is what is required, I cannot support the thrust of the motion. As I say, there are so many areas where we need to put increased investment into autism services, including putting more resources into Middletown. However, I cannot support the thrust and direction of the motion. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how he intends not only to support the Middletown centre further but to improve autism services more generally.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I call the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir, to respond to the debate. The Minister has up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am getting indications that I do not have to take the full 15 minutes, but we shall see how it goes.

I thank all the Members who took part in the debate, which was very constructive. I even find myself in the rare situation of agreeing with Steven Agnew, which does not happen all that often. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the work at Middletown. While I disagree with the motion and will, therefore, vote against it if it is moved, I appreciate that the motivation behind it is very genuine and sincere in trying to focus on the particular way forward for Middletown.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debate on a motion dealing very directly and specifically with the Middletown centre quite often diverged into wider issues around autism; that is quite understandable. I will deal with a couple of the points. Both the visit to Middletown and the recent meeting with representatives of the all-party group on autism and Autism NI have been mentioned. The proposer also mentioned 'Broken Promises'. As a Department, we are trying to deliver on those, particularly through teacher training, which was mentioned and is one of the key aspects of Middletown.

There has been a great deal of criticism, particularly of the diagnostic side of things. Delivery for probably the majority of 'Broken Promises' lies with the Department of Health, which leads on autism, but I am very encouraged by the level of engagement across the Executive with Autism NI and the National Autistic Society NI. It has not been just me. I know that the Health Minister, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have recently met representatives of those organisations. There is a determination to try to resolve the issues. As we move through the mandate, we will be contributing to the ongoing autism strategy, the lead for which again lies with another Department.

One of the things that has united the House in its approach is the fairly consistent welcoming of the good work and progress that is being made by the Middletown Centre for Autism, and by my Department and the Department of Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland, as they work together to promote excellence in the development and delivery of education services for children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders. The increased number of pupils, parents and professionals who have benefited from the centre's services is evidence of the fact that the centre has become an important part of the specialist second-tier services available to support children in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, the success of that is borne out by the various inspection reports.

The motion goes very much to the heart of the delivery of the model that will be provided. The centre's current service model has three elements to it. First, it has an intensive one-to-one multidisciplinary assessment and support outreach service for pupils with the most complex autism needs. Secondly, it has a training and advisory service that provides training to education professionals and parents. Mention has been made of the Education Authority records. We will be pressing it on better ways in which those training records can be provided. Thirdly, it has a research and information service that requires the most up-to-date information, techniques and best practice to be used. To date, the centre has provided training to over 62,000 parents and education professionals in the Republic and Northern Ireland. If there is a case for a some officials having a wider scope, I am sure that that can be looked at.

May I correct one thing that the proposer said? I have not been able to find any record of where I said that I believe that residential is a better way forward or, indeed, that it should be part of the way forward. What has been acknowledged, I think, by the centre is that residential would be of some value to a small number of children, but it has also said that the current outreach intervention work is having a much more immediate and prolonged impact, not only on children and young people with autism who are referred but on their families, on school staff and on pupils.

I was going to deal with the point that was raised by the SDLP, but its members seem to have left the Chamber. I will maybe come back to that. I am grateful to see that Mark has returned. Mr Durkan asked why there was the shift. There were two reasons for it. The less beneficial one was the fact that the level of finance that was proposed, particularly from the Republic of Ireland, decreased. It was not able to be provided. That meant a certain rejigging of the model. However, the virtuous element of that is that the rejigging followed best practice and has turned out to be the better route.

Since October 2010, the centre has provided assessment and support to children through its outreach service. The wider impact means that other children with autism, not just those who are referred, receive support, either as part of the referred child's class or via teacher training. To date, it is estimated that that has impacted on around 3,000 children and young people.

As Members will be aware, two joint inspections have taken place, in April 2012 and April 2016. The idea of review may therefore be a little premature at this stage. Both inspections evaluated the provision of services as outstanding. The most recent inspection highlighted the fact that the services impacted significantly on the education and life experiences of referred pupils, their teachers and their parents. Key strengths highlighted in the evaluation relate to the multidisciplinary nature of the outreach service and the extent and duration of the centre's involvement in pupils' home and school simultaneously. The quality of leadership and management was also described as being outstanding.

It is unfortunate that the proposers of the motion appear to have missed those positive reports and focused instead on the lack of residential assessment, perceiving that to be a setback to autism services. I do not believe that that is the case. We are all aware of the background; I have dealt with it. The outreach service is fundamentally the same assessment and support service for children with autism as was originally intended. It provides the assessment, therapies and education plan to meet the individual needs of the child. However, significantly, it is delivered in the child’s home and school setting for up to three school terms, instead of residentially at the Middletown centre. In fact, the service is having a wide-ranging positive impact not just on the referred pupils but on teachers, parents, siblings and other members of the family and, indeed, other children with autism who attend that child’s school. It is difficult to see that outstanding provision as a setback for autism, considering that those wider-reaching impacts would never have been achieved if we had simply gone down the residential route.

At a recent visit to the centre in August, I spoke to the parents of a child who had been referred to Middletown. They explained that they were initially very apprehensive about the offer of support from Middletown, as they thought that their child would have to attend the centre on a residential basis. They did not feel that it would be in the best interests of the child to attend on that basis, as it would take the child away from family and family surroundings. However, they told me that the intensive outreach intervention programme that was provided in their home and in their child’s school made all the difference to their lives. They described it as "life-changing", and they were very emotional in their praise of Middletown staff. A number of other parents took a similar position.

The centre's staff has advised me that, while a residential facility might assist a small number of children, the centre’s current approach has a much more prolonged impact, as the outreach model allows all those young people to be a part of the young person’s life. Therefore, it has a much greater impact.

Looking back at the original rationale for Middletown, it was based on the need to:

"address the increasing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders; recognise good practice and support; and complement current services."

The result was the joint government approach and policy decision to establish Middletown Centre for Autism to provide a specialist second-level autism support service. I think that the centre is delivering on the original concept and is having a wider-reaching and more positive impact with the outreach learning, support and assessment service.

I also highlight that the centre has been developing its services by assisting whole schools to develop their capacity to support pupils with autism, working in the referred schools to bring about a culture change and increasing the school’s confidence and capacity to respond to the needs of learners with autism. One intervention creates positive ripples on the pond. Investment in online training is also ongoing to provide easier access to those who are unable to attend events, such as the refreshers and updates for those who have already received training.

Much has been made of the financial situation, and I appreciate that, as an Executive, we need to see what more we can do on autism. Take Mr Lunn's point — he suddenly pays attention at this point. He spoke of what we could do if, for example, there was a 50% increase in funding. However, if we were to move to an additional residential model and do it properly, we would have to treble the budget. At the moment, if someone gave me 50% more money for Middletown, I would look to expand the outreach services, because that is the greatest need.

Mrs Armstrong said that there were still parents who were unaware of Middletown, and we must reach out to those people. I appreciate that you can always do certain things that are to the benefit of very small groups of children, but, to reach the maximum number of children, any additional resources should mostly be directed to outreach because that is the best bit. That is why I oppose the motion. I oppose it not simply because of that conviction but from discussions with the staff and the board when I was in Middletown. At that point, we were waiting for the appointments from the Republic of Ireland; we had made the Northern Ireland appointments. However, from speaking to the person who was, I think, about to be the chair of the board and to parents, children and Autism NI during my recent visit, I see that there is a clear direction of travel that says the route to go is outreach and increased levels of outreach rather than residential. That is the danger with that.

As we move forward, it is important to ensure that the services delivered reflect best practice. That is why the centre continues to use the latest research, including the findings from its intensive intervention service, to support future training. The new board of directors will consider the future direction of services as part of the centre's business planning process. If the new directors decide on a different emphasis, I will take their professional judgement and move in that direction, but, as things stand, the focus has got to be on outreach. If there is significant change, that is likely to have a price tag attached, and we have to ensure that we get the best delivery for that.

I am happy to work, as and when required, with Executive colleagues, the centre, its board of directors and the Department of Education and Skills on the services provided by the centre. All of us have a role in enhancing educational achievement and providing the best pathways, particularly for those with special educational needs such as autism. Importantly for Middletown, we need to continue to focus on developing effective child-centred services based on best practice, so I reject the analysis that the failure to provide residential provision at Middletown represents a setback for autism services: it does not. That flies in the face of the independent inspection reports and the views expressed to me by all stakeholders. I do not see it as being a setback, and I believe that the best way forward is to continue on the route we have been on. That is why, with all sincerity, I have to oppose the motion and ask whether, in light of what has been said, the supporters of the motion want to carry on with it or whether the fact that we have had the debate has, at least, been able to unearth a degree of light.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker 11:45 am, 15th November 2016

I call Ms Jennifer McCann — sorry, Ms Catherine Seeley to wind up the debate on the motion, and the Member has up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin

I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. It was a positive debate. I thank the Minister for being here. I want to say from the outset that the motion was not intended to attack or critique the work of the Minister; it was really just to call for reassurances that he is committed to supporting children with autism, the families of children with autism and the teachers of children with autism despite the recent decision around residential provision at the Middletown Centre for Autism, which, as my party colleague Barry McElduff rightly said, has been abandoned. I think that the Minister, in his contributions, has given those assurances, and I welcome that. I want to echo the praise for the centre that my party colleague Jennifer mentioned.

In response to a question for written answer, the Minister gave assurances that assessments and therapies, although not being carried out on-site at the Middletown Centre for Autism, were being delivered in the child's home, school or community. I have spoken with staff at the centre, and they are content with that. However, what has caused concern is the suggestion that that decision signified a lesser commitment to services for children with autism and, indeed, their families.

In a response to a question for written answer from Mr McNulty and Mr Durkan's party leader, the centre advised that a residential facility would be of value to a small number of children. That is what we are calling for. I welcome the comments from Kellie Armstrong. I thank her for sharing her personal experience of autism, which contributed well to the debate.

The Middletown Centre for Autism supports the promotion of excellence in the development and coordination of education services to young people with ASD. It is an area of cross-border cooperation, hence it is located near the border, which Lord Morrow, my colleague on the Education Committee, queried. It is not simply used by residents in the South; it is equally funded by them.

Between 2002 and 2012, the Executive contributed approximately £6 million to developing the centre, which was a much needed resource at the time. In addition to assessments and therapies, the centre aims to upskill teachers at a time when autism training is not mandatory, which is something that, I hope, the Minister will reconsider during his term. Whilst the residential aspect has not been realised, it is important to note that this is not a case of either/or; we need both levels of provision to work hand in hand. I also accept Mrs Barton's comments that this is not the only way that we need to address autism and agree with her comments on autism services for older people and those who are outside the education setting.

A transdisciplinary team currently works with identified children to understand their needs in their school and home settings. That provides training and techniques for teachers, parents and siblings as well as awareness and understanding for the children's peers. That has to be welcomed, and we do not deny that at all. That said, the extent of the outreach is limited by resource and is not consistent across the North. For that reason, I ask the Minister to commit to extending the work of the transdisciplinary teams as well. Mrs Overend detailed the number of children awaiting a diagnosis, which could be addressed by expanding and further resourcing the team and, indeed, the centre.

I have spoken to staff in the centre, who believe that there is a need to expand in order to provide services to the increasing number of children with ASD. At the beginning of this week, they expressed directly to me a desire to have some level of residential provision to offer respite to parents and carers, particularly the parents and carers of multiple children with learning and/or physical disabilities. Whilst Mr McNulty is right in his commentary on the success of the current outworkings, with a renewed commitment and additional resource, children could benefit further, as Mr Lunn said. Therefore, I call on the Minister — I know that he recently visited the centre, for which the staff were very grateful — to re-engage meaningfully with centre staff and centre users to gain a fuller understanding of the need, with a view to ensuring that all children are supported to reach their full potential, irrespective of their disability.

I welcome the tone of the debate around the Chamber. It is not our intention to divide. We wanted to have a fruitful debate on autism services, and I think that we have had that. We wanted to raise awareness and seek reassurances from the Minister that he is committed —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way and for her comments. When I was at Middletown, I had the opportunity to speak to the incoming chair of the group. At that stage, there had been a delay. Some of the appointments to the board come from my Department, and some come from the Department in the Republic of Ireland. At that stage, we had made the appointments and the Republic had not. Subsequent to that visit, Minister Bruton from the Republic's Government made those appointments. That means that we now have a full board. I will be happy to have ongoing engagement — that is probably the best route — with the board as we move ahead, because it is obviously in the best position to make a judgement on that. I am happy to give that assurance.

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister: indeed, he has given multiple assurances this morning that have to be welcomed. When I spoke to the centre, I found that that is exactly what they want. They want to re-engage the Minister and the Department with a view to ensuring that there is a small level of residential provision and that access to respite is available. In my conversation with staff, they really focused on the need to extend and expand their services so that they work with more teachers, carers and parents of children with autism. We welcome the tone of the debate on all sides of the House this morning and the commitment and reassurances from the Minister. We now feel much more positive that the Minister will extend, expand and resource services for those children, the families of those children and the teachers of children with autism.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

This is just to serve notice that our party is of a mind to withdraw the motion, if the facility is open to us, given that there has been a very full debate on the value of the Middletown centre and a recognition that the Minister and the Department are moving in the right direction. Of course, we reserve the right to hold our position regarding the value of a residential facility as well.

Photo of Catherine Seeley Catherine Seeley Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 15th November 2016

I thank the Member for giving way. I urge —


I thank the Member for his contribution. Apologies: it was me speaking.

We do not want to divide on the issue. That would not send out a positive message to the centre or to teachers, parents and carers of children with autism. I hope that we can move forward on the issue, with consensus right across the House.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

The Member has sought leave to withdraw the motion in the Order Paper standing in the names of Mr Barry McElduff, Ms Catherine Seeley and Ms Jennifer McCann. If there are no objections, the motion will be withdrawn.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I ask Members to take their ease.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)