Backbench Business - World Autism Awareness Week Backbench Business

Mike Wood:  I am proud to be a governor at Halesbury School, which has become a specialist autism school where more than a third of pupils have autism, many undiagnosed when they join the school. I am grateful to the deputy head, Amanda Appleby-Payne, for the insight she offered ahead of this debate.

Two special schools in my constituency are doing excellent work for children with autism. The Brier School has been rated “outstanding” in every category for its two most recent Ofsted inspections, and Pens Meadow provides an incredible level of education, care and support for children with very severe and complex special needs. I was pleased to open its new post-16 facility last autumn, which means that more young people with autism will be able to access further and vocational education.

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects people very differently. It affects how they communicate and how they make sense of the world around them. While many people live largely independent lives, others need more specialist support. Unfortunately, many people live a life full of anxiety, depression, mental health issues and sensory sensitivities that make it extremely difficult for them to function or to access the normal situations and public services we take for granted.

A 2012 study found that about 1.1% of adults were on the autistic spectrum, and a later study found a similar prevalence among children. If this House is representative of the population at large, therefore, we would expect at least seven Members to be on the autistic spectrum.

Unfortunately, the excellent support and education provided to children with autism at Halesbury, The Brier and Pens Meadow are not always reflected in the education system as a whole. There are 120,000 school-age children in England on the autistic spectrum, more than 70% of whom are in mainstream education. The implication is that many teachers in mainstream schools are likely to have children with autism in their classes—if they do not at the moment, they almost certainly will at some stage during their careers.

I pay tribute to the NASUWT for the valuable work it has done on this issue and particularly for the report my right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan referred to, which showed that 60% of teachers do not believe they have enough training to meet the needs of pupils with ASD.

 

Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

My hon. Friend is making some powerful points about the education of young people with autism. Is he aware of the work being done by Ambitious about Autism, which shows that the number of special educational needs appeals at tribunals went up from over 1,000 in 1995 to over 4,000 in 2014? Among the most common types of appeal are those involving autism.

 

Mike Wood: Having met Ambitious about Autism and discussed that very point, I certainly recognise the challenge to which my right hon. Friend refers.

Difficulties in the classroom and for families of children with autism often arise because of a lack of knowledge and understanding about the condition. Children on the autistic spectrum often get chastised for not behaving in exactly the same way as other children. Their exclusion rates are extremely high, and figures from the Department for Education show that autistic pupils are four times more likely to be excluded than pupils with no special educational needs.

Teacher training must equip teachers with the knowledge and tools they need to provide all pupils with the best possible support throughout their time in education. That is why I support the call by Ambitious about Autism and the National Autistic Society for autism to be included in the new teacher training framework.

If I may, I will conclude with the words of Mr and Mrs Whitmore, the parents of a pupil at Halesbury:

“We want our son to be accepted—and for him to be accepted equally as a citizen of this country, as his peers are...Autism is only a small fraction of our son; it is not everything he is. Will is so much more than the label society has given him.”

It is for people such as Will and the families who are working to make sure their children and everybody affected by autism can have the best possible chance to fulfil their full potential, whether that is in the workplace or in society as a whole, that we are having this debate. This debate is a huge and positive step forward, and we have seen the quality of the contributions that have been made. I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.