[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair] — Children and Young People with Autism

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8th October 2008.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 9:30 am, 8th October 2008

It should be the subject of serious, and possibly quite lengthy and well-financed research, as the hon. Lady says. I hope that she will share that wisdom with the wider constituency of Erewash.

I want to move on to the critical subject of the identification of, and support for, children and young people, up to 16-plus, on the autistic spectrum. We should be ashamed that 45 per cent. of parents say that they have to wait a year, or more, from the moment when they flag up their concern about a potentially autistic child to the point at which they receive assistance. What is needed as a matter of urgency is support tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of the individual child. There is no absolute answer to such matters, and of course there is no known cause of autism and indeed no established cure.

Support is of the essence, be it through the use of stress alert cards in the school environment; the use of symbols, pictures or photos; the use of differentiated break times divided up into bite-size chunks, which an autistic child can more successfully manage; the use of designated quiet places where an autistic child can escape the noise, the bustle, the disturbance and anxiety caused to him or her by being surrounded by a large number of other people; the development of social skills programmes; the use of picture exchange communication systems, which have been peer reviewed and judged by the university of Southampton to be one of the most efficacious interventions yet devised; through early intensive behavioural intervention, which has been similarly well reviewed, although it is the subject of some academic and other controversy; or through support in the home. The last of those is critical, because we are seeking a seamless provision of care and effective help for the child. Often a child gets terrific support in the school setting, but then—we are told this by children and parents—when the child comes home, everything falls apart. That interaction and communication between the school and the parent and child is of the essence.

We require a continuum of support, not in any one hon. Member's constituency but across the country—a continuum of provision, of different types of tailored and specified suitable education. In some cases, that will involve mainstream schools with support; in others, it will involve resourced units or departments for children on the autistic spectrum with greater needs, and in others, particularly in the more acute or severe cases with intense and ongoing need, it will involve a special school.

My part of the country—Buckinghamshire—has six resourced units for autistic children at primary level, and two at secondary level, but it is very much a postcode lottery across the country. We know from the research evidence—and we should be concerned about and challenged by this—that 50 per cent. of parents of autistic children judge that their child is in the wrong setting and that autism cases account for 25 per cent. of all the cases that go to the special educational needs and disability tribunal. If right hon. and hon. Members think that the situation is not great at the primary level and tends to deteriorate further at secondary level, they have seen nothing unless they reflect on the phenomenon of the paucity of provision post-16. The Commission for Social Care Inspection said that transition services from secondary school to post-16 are "a nightmare".

I do not want—it would not be right—to allow this debate to degenerate merely into a relentless diet of negativity, and nor, in my judgment, is it principally a matter of partisan conflict between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. We should pay tribute to, champion and celebrate good work. Let me refer, therefore, to the National Autistic Society Barnet branch, working in conjunction with Aimhigher. It provides information, support and guidance to children and young people seeking to enter further or higher education. It has pioneered—it is a trailblazer—fantastic transition schools that assist in this important public policy objective. It runs a disabled students ambassador scheme, and the programme as a whole won the voluntary sector organisation of the year award at the London education partnership awards in 2007. That shows what can be achieved in the interests of the child or young person with application, creativity, vision and persistence.