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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:40 am on 8th October 2008.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:40 am, 8th October 2008

And it is time consuming. Part of the problem is that local authorities have three roles: they assess the child's needs; they are the paymasters for funding what needs to be supplied; and they are often the suppliers of special educational needs provision. The service is made to fit the cash available; it is not tailor-made to fit the child's needs. Parents must be articulate to navigate their way through the system, and it is often the most deprived who miss out. It can be a very lonely time for parents, which is why my party, through the Sir Robert Balchin commission, has come up with proposals, which we are considering, to replace statements with special needs profiles drawn up by profile assessors—educational psychologists—who are independent of local authorities and who concentrate on early intervention and regular review. We should have special needs profiles that allocate children not only to one designation, but perhaps to one of a dozen support categories, often because they have complex needs that require multiple application. There should be portable funding to mainstream schools, and the assessors should be independent of local authorities and should be peer reviewed. There should also be a special needs mediation service with tribunals as the last resort, which has also been mentioned today. We want some big changes in the way in which we assess special educational needs, so that the assessments are tailor-made to the children.

Many hon. Members have mentioned support groups such as the National Autistic Society and TreeHouse, which do fantastic work. TreeHouse's constructive campaigning parent support project provides vital help to parents, who often feel alienated and isolated. The experience of school is not just about learning in the classroom; it is about the social interaction of children with their peers, which is why it is so important to concentrate on communication skills from an early stage. It was interesting to hear the hon. Dr. Ladyman, who is so knowledgeable about the subject, speaking about the importance of listening to mums.

I have a lot of sympathy with the National Autistic Society's ongoing research and its report, "make school make sense", which rightly says that we need more research into the nature of exclusions. We need greater availability of expertise in mainstream and specialist schools. That takes up the point in the NUT survey that three quarters of teachers are ill equipped to look after children with autism.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and Mark Williams, who has expertise in education, have mentioned, we must give greater seniority to SENCOs and provide them with more autism training, which must be ongoing, earlier. We must also look at halfway houses, so that we have some specialist units within mainstream schools. It is not a question of going to a specialist school or going to a mainstream school and hopefully receiving some support. There must be as much flexibility in the system as possible.

Many parents complain about delays in starting support and are left waiting, often at a crucial time, even when their child's special educational needs have been identified and a support package has supposedly been put in place. There is an impact on the classmates of a child with special educational needs. It is not a one-way-street; it is a learning process for other children and adults in society to discover how best to integrate and relate to people who happen to have a special educational need that is autism. That does not make them a different or lesser person. Support for parents and carers is as vital as special educational needs identification for a child, whatever the educational setting.

I was taken by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the cradle-to-grave pilots in Wales, and the autism ambassadors, which is another way of raising the profile of the issue and its importance in schools. Many hon. Members mentioned the transition points—20 per cent. of children have special educational needs below the age of 16, but that drops to 7.3 per cent. at the age of 16, and worse at the age of 18. They are dropping out of the system, but their disabilities do not go away because they have dropped off the radar. We need better transitions, and we must boost the Government's transition support programme. Mr. Clarke, who has such expertise in this area, mentioned that.

It is complicated, but it is essential to intervene early, and to invest to save so much later. We spend around £2.7 billion on intervention for children with autism, but that rises to £25 billion for adults with autism. It is a no-brainer that we should front-load that investment rather more than we are at the moment to prevent so many more problems in the personal experience of those children as they reach adulthood.