Cheryl Gillan MP: Ten years on from the landmark Autism Act, we must do more to create a society that works for autistic people
Too many people with autism are left lonely or isolated, unable to get the support they need. This must change, writes Cheryl Gillan MP, chair of the Autism APPG
According to new research, two thirds of autistic adults in England are living without the care and support they need to live full lives. The study was undertaken by the Autism APPG, which I am proud to chair, and the National Autistic Society – and worryingly this could amount to as many as 327,000 people across England. Their needs are often overlooked because of their autism – which is in part due to the lack of professional understanding of the condition. This must change.
This widespread unmet need is leading too many autistic people – both children and adults – to fall into crisis. Because they are not getting the care they need to get out and about, volunteer or work, many are left lonely or isolated, stuck in their homes.
Unfortunately this is contributing to thousands developing mental health conditions, with too many ending up in mental health hospitals because there’s no support available. While the Autism Act has made a difference, there is clearly still more work to do to ensure autistic people can access the support they need to live the lives they want.
Ten years ago, I was incredibly proud to campaign alongside autistic people, their families, and autism charities for the introduction of an Autism Act to create new legal duties to provide adult autism services in England. This followed the publication of the National Autistic Society’s I Exist report which identified a lack of support for autistic adults. There were too few diagnostic services for adults and many of the services that did exist were only for people with a learning disability or mental health problem. Autistic people fell between the gaps.
With the support of thousands of autistic people and their families, our campaign was successful, and the Autism Act was passed in 2009. It remains the only Act dedicated to improving support and services for a specific group of disabled people, through a national autism strategy.
Since the Act was introduced, there has been some significant progress. Awareness of autism has increased and every council now has an adult autism diagnosis pathway – fewer than half did before the Autism Act. Now all but a very few councils now have a lead commissioner for autism. Autism is also a cross-party priority, and was mentioned in the vast majority of parties’ manifestos in the last general election, and is a clinical priority in NHS England’s new NHS Long Term Plan.
However it’s not enough. Unfortunately I and my MP colleagues continue to be contacted by autistic constituents or their family members who struggle to get the support that they need. That’s why the APPGA wanted to find out what autistic people are experiencing now.
On 1 May this year, it was an honour to sponsor the first ever autism training session for MPs here in the House, attended by 82 Members. The training, led by the National Autistic Society, gave Members a powerful insight into the challenges that autistic people can face, whilst also giving practical guidance on how best to support people with autism in constituency advice surgeries. I hope many more will take part in future sessions: I was especially delighted with the response from the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, to my penultimate Question to her at PMQs, where she reinforced her own commitment to undertake such training.
The Government is reviewing its autism strategy – and for the first time it will include children too. This is our opportunity to help shape what the Government’s vision for autistic people should be for the years ahead. Our new research shows exactly what needs to happen.
This will be my focus over the coming months, and for many of my colleagues. We will work with charities, like the National Autistic Society with it’s Not Enough campaign, so that 10 years since the Autism Act, we can create a society that works for autistic people.
Cheryl Gillan is Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham and chair of the Autism APPG