I fully recognise the incredible pressure that the pandemic has put on autistic children, their families and carers.
The Scottish Government has provided significant additional funding to help meet those pressures, including £170,000 to national autism charities, £28.5 million for local carer support and a further £1.1 million last year to the voluntary sector short breaks fund. We also published our plan, “Learning/Intellectual Disability and Autism: “Towards Transformation”, in March.
The director of the National Autistic Society Scotland has warned that the pandemic has removed critical support for families, which has left carers and young people struggling. Home schooling was difficult for children with autism to adjust to, with statistics showing that 63 per cent of autistic young people missed attending school. In addition, figures from the Autism Centre for Education and Research revealed uncertainty around education, which caused high levels of stress and anxiety.
What progress has been made on the proposed learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill? When will families and people with autism receive the help and support that they deserve?
Families will continue to receive support, some of which I have already outlined. I am sure that that issue will form part of the discussion that I have with the director of the NAS when we meet shortly.
As far as the bill and the proposed learning disability and autism commissioner are concerned, the Scottish Government will carry out the scoping work for all of that, including the commissioner’s remit and powers, very soon, and within the current parliamentary year. A commissioner will be appointed as soon as possible following the bill’s successful passage.
I know that there are very diverse views on how we should progress our work in this area, and I aim to talk to as many stakeholders as possible to ensure that we get the scoping work, and the proposed commissioner’s remit and powers, right.
Will the minister set out what action is being taken to support young children who are effective in masking or hiding their autism, which causes delays in their receiving a timely diagnosis in the early years of their education? Will he tell us specifically what action is being taken to support young girls, who are more likely to mask their symptoms? How will the Government adapt pre-pandemic plans to do more to work with the affected families to focus on identifying and supporting the children concerned?
I will write to Ms Hyslop, because a lot of work is being done in that area. Very briefly, new guidance that was commissioned by the Scottish Government and published by the national autism implementation team in May this year supports areas to develop local children’s neurodevelopmental pathways. We know that there are challenges in diagnosis, particularly with young females, who are able to mask the condition. We will do more to develop the guidance to get it absolutely right in that respect.
As I said, it is a complex area. I will write to Ms Hyslop, and any other member who requires that information, in some depth.