Good morning, Mr. Caton. I welcome you to the Chair, and this rich galaxy of parliamentary talent to our debate. I begin by declaring an interest as the father of a four-year-old boy, Oliver, who has been diagnosed as exhibiting the characteristics of high-functioning autism. In addition, I thank the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, Research Autism and Buckinghamshire county council for their invaluable briefings for this debate.
Autism is a complex, lifelong neurological condition that affects a person's ability to communicate with and relate to other people. It is estimated that approximately one in every 100 school-aged children is on the autism spectrum. The vast majority, approximately 70 per cent., are in mainstream schools. They are, I am sorry to say, three times more likely to experience mental health problems than their non-autistic peers. Equally, it is estimated that only about 12 per cent. of them end up in employment. The cost annually of that sector of the child population is thought to be about £2.8 billion.
I emphasise that we are talking about a spectrum condition, which implies that there are many variants on the theme. The nature and intensity of the difficulty and the resulting need can and do vary substantially, but to encapsulate the concept I would say that all autistic people have one characteristic in common. They all suffer from the triad of impairments: that is to say, they suffer from problems of social communication, social imagination and social interaction.
In the course of this debate and in my opening remarks, I shall focus on three principal issues. In order to learn and be educated, a child or young person must be safely in a setting in which he or she can do so. It should therefore be a legitimate matter of ongoing and serious concern to right hon. and hon. Members that people on the autism spectrum are disproportionately more likely—to be pedantic and precise, approximately nine times more likely—to be excluded from school than their non-autistic peers. That is a salutary and disturbing thought. Typically, 27 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are excluded, compared with 3 or 4 per cent. of their non-autistic counterparts.
Significantly, however, there is an additional and more disturbing phenomenon—not merely exclusion of an official kind but unofficial, informal, sometimes internal and frequently if not invariably unrecorded exclusions of children and young people. I refer in this context to the TreeHouse constructive campaigning parent support project survey report following research conducted between January and July 2007, the results of which, in summary or detailed form, have recently winged their way to the Minister of State. That report found, alarmingly, that 43 per cent. of respondent parents said that their child had been excluded from school at least once, and possibly more than once, in the previous 12 months.
Members, wise and savvy as they are, will know that guidance exists on exclusions, of course. I do not know whether the Minister thinks it is necessary to send the guidance—all 80 pages of it—to schools again to remind them of their responsibilities to cater effectively within the school for the needs of the child. If he is reluctant to do so, which I can understand, I hope he will accept at the very least that memories should be stirred and schools should be reminded of page 15 of the latest guidance—I think it is paragraph 27, but I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—which underlines that unofficial exclusions, even with the parents' consent, are illegal. They are not just undesirable, ill-advised and a failure to cater to the needs of the child but illegal.
Let me give an example of unofficial exclusion, culled from the annals of briefings from the National Autistic Society: a teacher says simply to the parent of a child, "It would be better if he went home." Very often, disability and disobedience are mistakenly and ignorantly conflated. It is incredibly important to get a grip on the distinction between the two.