All 1 contributions to the Autism (early identification) Bill 2023-24

Tue 30th Jan 2024

Autism (Early Identification)

1st reading
Tuesday 30th January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Autism (early identification) Bill 2023-24 Read Hansard Text

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
13:03
Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the training of teachers in relation to the early identification of autism; and for connected purposes.

For those with autism, the stats are stark. Fewer than half of autistic children say that they are happy in school; 73% of young autistic people say that their teachers do not understand their needs; only 20% achieve grade 5 or above in English and maths GCSEs, compared with 52% for all pupils; and, on top of that, autistic children are twice as likely to be excluded from school than their peers.

It does not get better in adulthood. Just 29% of autistic people are in full or part-time employment, and those in work are paid a third less than their peers. That is not right, especially when the potential of autistic children with proper support should not be underestimated. Autistic people have stronger attention to detail, creative talents, mathematical and technical abilities, and expertise in niche areas. Those of us who know autistic children know that they are honest and loyal.

We all know that an early diagnosis helps to identify what an individual child needs and what adjustments need to be put in place so that their strengths can be maximised. It provides a positive pathway instead of a negative one. It means that those with autism are more likely to find work. It helps to combat mental health issues, which affect 54% of those with special educational needs and disabilities and cost the UK economy £582 million.

However, 92% of children wait longer than the NHS 13-week deadline, and 46% wait more than 18 months—that backlog means that a quarter of children with autism will not be diagnosed while in school. In Norfolk between 2021 and October 2023, 1,141 under-18s were diagnosed with autism. Many wait longer than 18 months for their diagnosis—some even wait three years, and one waited 10 years. How many more of the 187,000 children in Norfolk will not be assessed at all?

The question is, why does a diagnosis not happen until much later? Unfortunately, there is often a “wait and see” attitude. However, not only is a delay in diagnosis extremely damaging for a child who is autistic, but it is unnecessary. Conditions such as autism have markers from six months old, as it becomes obvious through the way children learn, move or pay attention. Existing weaknesses in the SEND system, which were magnified by the pandemic, also make it difficult for people with autism to get a diagnosis. There are inconsistencies in how SEND is identified, a lack of joined-up thinking on care, and a lack of clarity regarding accountability and responsibility in organisations. That leads to delays in an already weak system, making the fight that many parents undertake to have their child assessed even harder.

Over a year ago in this Chamber, I mentioned Hayley Turner, a constituent who came to me as she was having difficulty getting the right support for her son, Rocky. I was asking about early years psychologists in Education questions, but it was partly through conversations with Hayley that the inspiration for this Bill took flight, so I would briefly like to share her story.

Rocky was two years old when his parents noticed that he was developing a little differently. It was when he started school aged four that it became clear that mainstream education was not the right fit and that those teaching him were not trained to teach children with neurodiverse conditions. That situation was very distressing for him and for Hayley, who had to fight to be heard. She went to tribunal and spent many hours putting together all the necessary paperwork to show that Rocky needed to be placed in specialist education. It was an unnecessary distraction that took Hayley away from being the mum she needed to be for both her children, which made everyday family life harder. Rocky is just one of thousands of children whose parents are fighting today for their children to have an adequate education. Indeed, the Government’s own SEND statistics show that 98% of parents win on appeal once they get to tribunal.

Those children are not difficult or troublesome. Hayley said something very poignant:

“Autistic children, whilst in mainstream schools, are easily misunderstood. They are just innocent children trying to survive in an environment that isn’t designed for them. They have to fail first before they are adequately supported and that’s not how a child should start their education.”

Rocky’s story was eventually a success story, but it is his story, along with other conversations I have had, that led me to introduce the Bill today. It is important to impress on all Members of the House that autistic children will not grow out of it: they will need extra help and targeted treatment to reduce the chance of negative consequences and financial burdens in later life. However, as it stands, just 39% of primary school teachers have more than half a day’s training in autism—such a small number. For secondary school, that figure drops to just 14%. SEND is seen as a specialist area—a bolt-on, not a built-in—with teacher training not including how to ensure that teachers can identify SEND markers. That needs to change. Autistic pupils routinely identify autism training for teachers as the single biggest change that would improve their experience of school. That can only happen if all teachers are trained in SEND.

It is for those reasons that I introduce my ten-minute rule Bill, the Autism (Early Identification) Bill, which will deliver support to increase autism assessment, reduce diagnosis waiting times and introduce mandatory autism training for all teachers. The Bill will provide a solid base through which all teachers will learn about early identification, the special educational needs code of practice, the pattern and sequence of child development, what needs to be done if a child has communication difficulties, and understanding and dealing with difficult behaviour. It will mean that if milestones are not met, help can be put in place; that fewer children will struggle in school; and that they will no longer be labelled difficult or disruptive. Through a Bill that ensures that all teaching staff can support autistic pupils well, schools will in turn become more inclusive places, where everyone—staff, pupils and parents—is truly valued and feels a sense of belonging.

I am encouraged by the openness of this Government to changes in the system. It is positive that the Government announced as far back as the last Queen’s Speech that every child will get the education they deserve, and that there is vision, ethos and strategic direction in our education system. I am also encouraged by the publication of the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, in which the Government stated that they

“will explore opportunities to build teacher expertise through a review of the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Core Content Framework and Early Career Framework.”

I was encouraged by the Secretary of State’s comments at the Dispatch Box yesterday, and by a letter from the Minister last July that said that

“all initial teacher training courses must be designed so that trainee teachers can demonstrate a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with SEND”

and that

“all teachers are teachers of SEND”.

All those objectives are encapsulated in the Bill, but it would go further. Having a special educational needs co-ordinator in school is not enough, and only having a few providers of training is not enough. The Bill will ensure that all autistic children receive the support they need so that they can flourish, and that autistic and SEND pupils are not a forgotten piece of the puzzle, but an integral part of the education system. It will help the Government achieve their objectives in this area. The Bill is supported by the sector, which is keen to work with the Government on the finer detail regarding what training is needed and how it should be rolled out, as well as to work on technologies to make the system around education, health and care plans a lot easier and ensure that support can be easily reviewed so that it continues to suit the young person’s needs.

As I wrap up, I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) to please be bold in this area. Please support us, and use the essence of my Bill to make sure that the reforms really do make autistic children’s lives better. I thank FullSpektrum, Keystone Consulting and Ambitious about Autism, as well as my constituent Hayley Turner and everyone else who has supported me so much in introducing this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Duncan Baker, Sir Robert Buckland, Dame Caroline Dinenage, Sir Liam Fox, Mr Robin Walker, Edward Timpson, Jim Shannon, Marion Fellows, Peter Gibson, James Sunderland, Elliot Colburn and Steve Tuckwell present the Bill.

Duncan Baker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 April, and to be printed (Bill 154).