Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy at the National Autistic Society
2021 could be a big year for autism, with the Government set to publish a new national autism strategy for England. This will set out how autistic people should be better supported and how Government, local authorities and the NHS will make it happen. For the first time, it will include both children and adults, and should cover everything from health and care to public understanding.
Why this is so important
Our research suggests that two in three autistic adults in England aren’t getting the support they need and that many autistic children struggle in and out of school.
What we’re expecting
The coronavirus pandemic has delayed the new strategy, but we’re now hoping it’ll be published in the next few months.
This is an opportunity to live up to the promise of the Autism Act. The strategy needs to cover many different areas, from special educational needs to social care. Our Autism Act, 10 years on report with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism set this out in detail. They are all important, but there are three areas that we believe must addressed, right from the start:
More than one in 100 children in England are autistic, and more than 70% of them attend mainstream schools. Every teacher will have autistic children in their classes throughout their career. It’s more important than ever that all teachers and school staff understand autism.
We want to see a commitment in the strategy to make sure that all school staff are trained in autism – like health and care staff will be. No autistic child should ever be held back.
Diagnosis waiting times and post-diagnostic support
An autism diagnosis is vital to getting timely care and support. Without support, too many autistic people develop mental health problems like anxiety or depression or end up in crisis, even in hospital.
Waiting times are still far too long in many parts of the country. NICE guidance is clear that no one should wait longer than three months between being referred and first being seen. In reality, waits can be many months long, even years. It’s highly probable that coronavirus has made it worse.
The NHS and councils need investment. These should include Specialist Autism Teams in every area, with access to post-diagnostic support like peer-to-peer and psychosocial support. The autism diagnosis crisis will not end until every area has the services it needs.
Improving public understanding of autism
Almost everyone has heard of autism. But few people understand what it’s actually like to be autistic and how overwhelming everyday life can be if you struggle to communicate or feel intense anxiety in social situations. Many autistic children, adults and their families tell us they routinely feel misunderstood, judged and even mocked.
In World Autism Awareness Week 2019, Matt Hancock committed to funding a national autism understanding campaign. This must be part of the new strategy and shift the attitudes of millions of people.
Many other things need to change in order to create a society that works for autistic people – not least the long-promised funding to our social care system. This, alongside a properly funded national autism strategy, could transform hundreds of thousands of lives. The Government must not miss this opportunity.
Find out more about autism and the National Autistic Society www.autism.org.uk