Learning Disabilities & Autism Opinion

New autism strategy for England  

Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy at the National Autistic Society

21 July was an important day for autistic people, with the Government launching its new all-age Autism Strategy for England. It is the biggest investment in autistic people ever, with £75 million funding for the first year of the strategy and commitments to tackle long diagnosis waiting times, improve public understanding of autism and provide better mental health support.

As you’ll know from my previous columns, we and our supporters have been campaigning for an ambitious and fully funded strategy for a long time. So this is a huge moment. But true change won’t happen until the Government honours its promise to reform the social care system.

What’s in the strategy

The strategy sets out how the Government plans to support autistic adults and children in England over the next five years. In the first year it promises to:

  • Invest £10.5 million into finding new ways to reduce diagnosis waiting times for children and young people
  • Invest £2.5 million to improve the quality of adult diagnostic and post-diagnostic pathways and diagnosis waiting times
  • Increase public understanding of autism with a long-term, nationwide initiative
  • Provide £18.5 million to prevent autistic people from falling into mental health crisis and £21 million to local authorities to help people in mental health hospitals back into the community
  • Improve understanding by training education professionals, job centre staff and frontline staff in the justice system.

These commitments total almost £75 million, but they only account for the first year of the strategy. We are expecting further financial commitments for 2022 onwards after the Government sets out its long-term spending promises in the Spending Review.

In terms of social care the autism strategy says that the Government will introduce reforms later this year. Increased funding cannot come soon enough and when it does, it needs to create the services that autistic people need, with staff who really understand autism. 

Why this is needed

National Autistic Society campaigners have long demanded better support and services for autistic people, for instance through our Not Enough and Left Stranded campaigns. In 2019, alongside the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, we found that over 2 in 3 autistic adults don’t get the support they need. Some people have to wait many months and even years for a diagnosis in certain parts of the country, and others feel routinely misunderstood and isolated. Things are even harder now, due to the pandemic, which disproportionately affected autistic people’s mental health and education. No-one should feel judged for being autistic or to have to wait many months for a potentially life changing diagnosis and vital help and support.

Is the strategy enough?

The Government’s strategy has recognised many of the inequalities autistic people face and committed to tackle them with some concrete proposals and funding. However, it’s success will depend on the Government:

  1. Backing the aims of the strategy by providing full funding beyond 2022
  2. Developing a workforce that’s fully equipped to support autistic people at every stage of their lives – this means the right number of staff, with the right skills and a good understanding of autism
  3. Fixing the social care crisis, which the Prime Minister promised on his first day in the job. The success of the strategy depends on this.

Next steps

We’ll keep working with our supporters and professionals to make sure that the autism strategy is implemented in local areas. We’ll also keep pushing for reforms to social care and ambitious investment in autistic people beyond the first year of this strategy. If this happens, the strategy could truly be a significant step towards a society that works for autistic people.

Find out more: autism.org.uk

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