Schools Autism Awareness Week

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16 March 2016.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-15289, in the name of Mark McDonald, on schools autism awareness week. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the National Autistic Society (NAS) Scotland’s first Schools Autism Awareness Week, which is scheduled to run from 14 to 18 March 2016; understands that the aim of the week is to encourage schools across the country to help pupils understand autism by planning fun and imaginative lessons, activities and assemblies; notes that NAS Scotland has developed resources to support the schools that are taking part; believes that there is a great potential for the week to improve the lives of autistic people by helping children and young people better understand the condition, and hopes that a greater awareness of it in schools will equip a new generation with the knowledge to accept and empathise with autistic people.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I thank members across the chamber who supported the motion and made it eligible for members’ business. I also thank those members who have stayed behind. We have had a very long day in the chamber, and their sacrifice in sticking around is noted and appreciated.

I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the National Autistic Society Scotland.

It has become an annual tradition for us to mark world autism awareness week with a debate in the Parliament, often on world autism awareness day itself. That is not possible this year: world autism awareness day is 2 April and world autism awareness week is from 2 to 8 April, but Parliament dissolves next week. I am advised that this year the National Autistic Society will launch its biggest ever public awareness campaign, and I am told that more details will follow about that.

I note that on Tuesday 22 March the BBC will screen a new drama series, “The A word”, featuring Christopher Eccleston. It will portray a family coming to terms with their son’s autism. I will watch it with keen interest. I am also aware that many will tune in who do not have a direct link to autism or an understanding or awareness of the condition.

That brings me to the substance of today’s debate. Schools autism awareness week began on Monday 14 March and ends on Friday. It is the first ever schools autism awareness week that the National Autistic Society has run. The NAS has established an array of online materials to support schools that wish to participate in the week’s activities.

I was delighted to learn that my daughter’s school—Dyce primary, which happens to be my former primary school—is taking part and will be increasing awareness and understanding of autism within the school throughout the week.

Why is the week important? The 2012 National Autistic Society report “Count us in” was launched in the Parliament by the actor Richard Wilson, who is the patron of the National Autistic Society in Scotland. That survey tells us 78 per cent of young people with autism thought that people outside their family did not know enough about autism and 65 per cent said that they had faced bullying at school. In addition, 33 per cent of adults said that they had experienced workplace bullying or harassment. The 2007 National Autistic Society report “Think differently about autism” tells us that 92 per cent of people said that they had heard of autism but fewer had heard of Asperger’s syndrome and 90 per cent did not know how prevalent autism is. That all stems from a lack of awareness and understanding, and, in some cases, a lack of empathy.

I watched a video last week that was put together by a group of young volunteers with the National Autistic Society. One girl spoke of the misconception that people with autism lack empathy. In fact, it is often the case that people with autism are themselves subject to a lack of empathy from both individuals and institutions. Taking awareness raising into schools is important as a means of addressing that, giving young people a greater appreciation of the difficulties that people with autism can face as a result of any or all of sensory issues, developmental delay and inability to respond to or recognise social cues.

Bringing into the school environment and giving young people a greater appreciation of autism will help to eliminate some of the barriers that can exist, and will increase awareness and understanding. That will support greater empathy for those with autism. Given that one in 100 individuals is autistic, it is highly likely that a large proportion of children will know a child or children in their school or community with the condition.

There is good work out there already. The autism toolbox, a resource for schools that was launched in partnership by the Scottish Government and Scottish Autism with support from the Autism Network Scotland, helps to support teachers who have autistic children in their classes, sharing practical examples and offering support and signposting.

NAS Scotland delivers an education rights service, which provides impartial and confidential information for parents and carers of pre-school and school-age children. The service celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. NAS has also developed the my world service, which aims to provide education professionals with the tools to ensure that every autistic child is given the best chance.

In my research before the debate, I learned of the work done at Hillpark secondary school in Glasgow. Through the Hillpark autism unit buddy network, secondary 5 and 6 pupils volunteer to become buddies to pupils on the autistic spectrum. Potential buddies learn about the nature of the spectrum of human behaviour and relate that to themselves in areas such as shyness, organisational ability and sociability. The aim is to get young people to recognise that people with autism are not separate from them, do not have the stereotypical list of behaviours and are diverse in personality.

Feedback on the buddy network included these comments from an autistic pupil:

“The buddies helped me well with social skills. Classes were better when they were there because it was much more fun and they understood the kind of difficulties I had when I came to secondary school. The buddies can explain how the school works and how to get on with people. I would like to be a buddy when I am older because I like helping people and the buddies certainly helped me. It is good to have older friends in the school because it helped me to feel more part of the school when I first came here.”

I hope that schools autism awareness week helps to build on that work and, as it becomes more of a fixture, begins to address the statistics that I cited earlier.

Last week, a group of MSPs met with interested organisations and individuals to discuss how we can make Scotland a more autism-friendly nation. The meeting was designed to serve as a springboard for the establishment of a future cross-party group in the next session of Parliament. I do not know what the election holds in prospect, but I have said that, if I am returned to the Parliament, I would be happy to help in establishing a cross-party group. I know that other members on all sides of the chamber have similarly indicated their support.

Finally, I return to “The A Word”, and a scene that has been highlighted in advance of screening, in which the young boy at the centre of the drama experiences a meltdown at a birthday party. I know families whose child has been the only one in their class not to be invited to a birthday party because of their autism and a lack of understanding, and I know how that makes parents and children feel as a consequence. My hope is that, by raising awareness in schools and helping young people to become more aware, understanding and empathetic, we can consign such experiences to fiction.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

I, too, extend my thanks to my North East Scotland colleague Mark McDonald for once again bringing to the chamber a debate on autism. In the lifetime of the Parliament, we have looked at many aspects of understanding and coping with the condition, such as relaxed cinema and theatre performances, which have made such a difference in enabling people—especially children—to enjoy pursuits that most of us take for granted.

The motion before us moves the campaign to raise awareness of autism to a new—and to my mind, exciting—level. The focus today is on the role that our schools across the UK can play in assisting their pupils in their understanding of autism. I was interested to learn that the National Autistic Society’s approach does not involve lecturing, but instead involves activities that could be described as enjoyable as well as educational.

That approach complements the autism toolbox—already mentioned this evening—which was launched a few years ago. The toolbox is designed to support education authorities, schools and pre-schools in the delivery of services and planning for children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders.

The purpose of the toolbox is focused on supporting the inclusion of children and young people with ASD in mainstream education services in Scotland. It also introduces and describes some of the more common challenges that a pupil with autism might face. As Alasdair Allan, the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, said:

“The toolbox will help managers and teachers review their practice as well as providing advice on building relationships with parents and carers to create an inclusive environment that allows all pupils to learn and thrive.”

The innovative approach that the National Autistic Society has taken at a United Kingdom level and a Scottish level with regard to how children in schools view autism is to be applauded. I was very impressed by the availability of resource packs that identify ways in which fundraising activities can be made fun for pupils and staff. The guide provides many suggestions for activities in which schools can engage. If I was a teacher, I would probably happily take part in the bake sale, although I think that I would be less than enthusiastic in being part of the onesie Wednesday. Having said that, a non-uniform day is a great way to bring students and staff together.

The impressive work that the National Autistic Society has undertaken in preparing an A to Z of proposed activities demonstrates that the charity takes very seriously this special week, which is designed to raise the awareness of autism in schools, as part of its overall strategy in raising awareness of the condition. However, the NAS does not lose sight of the underlying importance of those activities.

For far too long, we have ignored how children with autism feel in an environment that does not always know how to approach them. Such an initiative is crucial in educating pupils to be inclusive and to learn to understand the problems that some of their classmates may face from day to day. There is an inspiring book called “Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew”. One of those things is:

“It may look like I don’t want to play with the other kids in the playground, but it may be that I simply do not know how to start a conversation or join in their play. Teach me how to play with others. Encourage other children to invite me to play along. I might be delighted to be included.”

That is the sort of message that schools autism awareness week wants to get across—that children need to know that children on the autistic spectrum are no different. We cannot go back to an age when children with ASD were educated in separate facilities.

Although this is not my final speech in the Parliament, it is the last of the 126 or so members’ business debates that I have contributed to in my time as an MSP, and I am pleased that the subject matter has been what is often a poorly understood condition that affects so many people, not least Mark McDonald and his family. I wish Mark and all those involved in raising awareness of autism all the very best in their future endeavours.

Photo of Christian Allard Christian Allard Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Mark McDonald for bringing the debate to the chamber because, at the end of the day, the Parliament has maybe not been as good as it could have been regarding the autism awareness week initiative from the National Autistic Society Scotland. Such initiatives have to be celebrated, and there is a time and a place for doing that. I am delighted to be part of the debate and to make a contribution in it.

As Mark McDonald said, the lack of awareness and understanding affects us all. The week is about how we can live in a better society. Autism awareness week in schools increases the understanding and acceptance of the different struggles that we have to deal with. We have to reflect on that. Schools all over Scotland are improving the understanding of the effects of autism and encouraging people to be mindful of those effects.

One example is Fraserburgh academy, whose awareness week has been quite celebrated and mentioned in the local press. The school kick-started the first autism awareness week by turning the school clock face purple, to show the commitment to the week. A local councillor, Charles Buchan, commented on that. He knows a lot about the issue, because he taught at the school before retiring and becoming a councillor for the town. He said:

“This awareness week can only be a good thing in removing some of the stigma which is associated with it.”

In his 43 years working in Fraserburgh academy, he will have met a lot of people with autism. Well done to the pupils of Fraserburgh academy. It is important to ensure that the same thing is replicated across Scotland.

Other schools are doing fantastic work. For example, St Andrew’s school in Inverurie offers a unique experience in an educational setting for pupils with a wide range of abilities and additional support needs, including a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder. That is a fantastic and important school in a quiet area of Inverurie, which provides easy access for children and young people from three to 18 years. Of course, Aberdeenshire Council provides transport. Other schools in the north-east, such as Mile End school and Hazlehead primary school, are also participating in the initiative.

An organisation that Mark McDonald knows very well is the charity SensationALL in my home town of Westhill. It is doing fantastically in providing great support for families and young people with autism. The co-founders are two Susans. One of them is Susan Kay, who is a mum of two children, one of whom has autism. She has great experience. As Mark McDonald knows, we are fighting hard just now to secure a proper setting for the charity in Westhill old school. I have been living in Westhill for a long time. It is important that we have that kind of charity to prove that we can be a lot more inclusive. The other co-founder is Susan Strachan, who is very well qualified and who has a lot of interest in autism, sensory issues and dyslexia. The charity’s development co-ordinator, Adele Lindsay, has a postgraduate certificate in autism and learning.

All those people in that third sector organisation have fantastic expertise and they can help our local school to understand better what it is all about.

Mark McDonald talked about last Wednesday’s round table, which was run by the National Autistic Society Scotland at Our Dynamic Earth. I was very impressed by the many organisations that took part in the group discussions. They asked why this Parliament has not done more for people on the autism spectrum. It was a real eye opener for me—just the idea that looking at people in the eyes is very difficult for some people on the spectrum. More important, maybe, was understanding that some people with autism will react differently from other people with autism. We need to understand that. It is not a homogeneous group of people; autism can have different effects in different people.

That made me think that it is not an autism-friendly society that we should strive for—a people-friendly Scotland is what we need. It is about people more than anything else.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I begin by thanking my friend Mark McDonald for initiating the debate today to mark the first schools autism awareness week.

Mark McDonald’s contribution is, of course, entirely consistent with the tremendous work that he has done to raise the profile of issues around autism throughout his time as a member of this Scottish Parliament. I want to thank him for that work. He highlighted very clearly the importance of ensuring that autism is better understood in our schools, something that I agree with entirely.

I thank those other members who have contributed to the debate this evening. They have all done so with a genuine interest in raising awareness of autism in schools, and they have all highlighted the importance of doing so. Christian Allard finished very eloquently on the point that we want to create a people-friendly environment in Scotland. That, of course, has to include those with a diagnosis of autism.

I hope that members will forgive me if I focus in particular on Dr Milne’s contribution. She has confirmed that that was not her last contribution in this Parliament. However, I rather suspect that it will be the last contribution that she makes in a debate that I will be taking part in with her. It is opportune for me to remark on that fact in advance of her retirement.

I am disappointed that she will not be able to take part in the Scottish Parliament onesie Wednesday that I think that we should hold in future, although she will, of course, be very welcome if she brings any produce for the bake sale that we can have. I wish her the very best for the future as she moves on to the next chapter in her life.

I thank the National Autistic Society for the work that it undertakes in general, but I highlight schools autism awareness week. I was very pleased to meet members of the society last week along with Mark McDonald. I am hugely impressed by their on-going commitment to supporting people with autism. That is a commitment that has spanned two decades; this is their 20th anniversary, which I think that we should remark upon.

As part of the discussion that I had with the society and Mr McDonald last week, we touched on the suggestion that there may be a cross-party group on autism, pending the results of the election and so on. Clearly, the establishment of any cross-party group is not a matter for the Government, but I can say that if any such cross-party group is established we, as a Government, would be very willing to engage with it.

The resources that have been produced for schools as part of the schools autism awareness week are fantastic. I very much hope that teachers and pupils across Scotland enjoy taking part to raise awareness of autism. I am delighted to hear that there has been such a high uptake from schools. That is very encouraging indeed.

The Government is committed to improving the lives of people with autism. In 2011 we launched the Scottish strategy for autism. We are now halfway through that 10-year strategy, and although I would be the first to concede that there is still much to be achieved, we have come some way towards ensuring that people with autism are better able to participate in all aspects of the community and society in which they live, work and socialise. It is essential that work associated with the strategy improves the outcomes of individuals with autism, as I set out in yesterday’s members’ business debate on Hamilton Academical Football Club’s community work, which includes a group to support families and carers of a person with autism.

Our priorities for people with such a diagnosis are for them to have a healthy life, choice and control, independence and active citizenship, just as we would wish for all Scotland’s citizens. We want to contribute to the people-friendly environment that Christian Allard spoke of.

Today we are marking schools autism awareness week. I am delighted that the autism toolbox, which is funded by the Scottish Government, is being used in schools across Scotland. As Mark McDonald set out, the toolbox aims to support the inclusion of children and young people with autism in mainstream education services right across Scotland. The resource provides case studies from Scottish schools that can be translated and used by others. The autism toolbox demonstrates some of the positive work that is going on across the country to support autistic children at school.

The Government has a clear ambition for all Scotland’s children and young people. We want them to get the most from the learning opportunities that are available, so that they can flourish in learning, work and life. Through getting it right for every child and curriculum for excellence, that ambition can be achieved.

An important part of our approach is the recognition that all young people, whether or not they have autism, are different. Our approach is to enable young people to maximise their capabilities, and we recognise that sometimes additional support may be required. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 provided the framework for the provision of support for learning in Scotland and aims to ensure that all children and young people are provided with the necessary support to help them work towards their full potential. It promotes collaborative working among all professionals who support children and young people.

We know that parents and carers are the most important and influential people in their children’s lives. When they are involved in their children’s education, everyone benefits, which is why we want all parents and carers to be equal partners in that education. Curriculum for excellence provides teachers with the flexibility and freedom to adapt teaching practice to meet learners’ individual needs. We want all children in Scotland to have the support that they need, regardless of their circumstances.

That is why the Scottish Government has invited the national parent forum of Scotland to lead a review of the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006. The review activity will begin shortly, and it is vital that parents of children with autism are supported to take part in the work.

We want all children to be happy and to reach their full potential. I am sure that we all remember what it was like to be a young person who was trying to find their way in life. For young people with additional support needs, that can be more challenging. Young people with autism often tell us that a lack of understanding of their condition can be one of the biggest challenges that they face at school. At an event last week that the National Autistic Society organised, many young people spoke about what it is like to have autism and how other people’s attitudes make them feel. Such young people want to be understood and accepted for who they are.

That reinforces the importance of ensuring that all children are aware of autism. I hope that schools autism awareness week results in greater awareness, understanding and sensitivity towards children and young people who are coping with autism. All those who have an interest in the area—and that must surely be all of us—can work collectively to that end.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Many thanks. That concludes Mark McDonald’s debate on schools autism awareness week. If I had not been presiding over this debate, I would have wanted to participate in it.

Meeting closed at 19:59.