A BILL aimed at improving services for people with autism has been rejected by a Holyrood committee.The Autism (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year by Hugh O'Donnell, a Liberal Democrat MSP for Central Scotland who used to be a support worker for people with autism.
A key requirement of his bill was that ministers would have to publish an "autism strategy" aimed at improving the current entitlement of people with the condition.
It stipulated that NHS bodies and local authorities should "have regard to" any guidance issued in the strategy.
However, the education committee published a report yesterday expressing concerns over the ability of the bill to deliver the required improvements, saying the proposed obligations were not "robust enough".
At present 50,000 Scots – that’s one in every hundred – lives on the autism spectrum, known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, and has undergone many of the experiences I describe. But perhaps the worst of these is the crushing sense of invisibility. However, it categorically does not have to be like this. Some people with autism require a lifetime of care but many on the “spectrum” are able to study, work and take part in the community; they just need help and support at certain points.
That’s why I have proposed the Autism Bill (Scotland). The bill will make people with autism visible, especially to those agencies that should be helping them. Currently those expected to help, such as local authorities, health, welfare and education services often fail to do so, because they don’t recognise autism, or understand its impact.
People with autism can have very good experiences. In Scotland we have some excellent examples of support and care. Sadly, they are not widespread and people with autism and their families and carers are caught in a “postcode lottery” with some areas of the country providing no support at all. Of the 50,000 Scottish people with autism, only 7,500 are known to local authorities. With the bill in place, the Scottish Government will be legally obliged to produce a strategy for autism services throughout the country which all the agencies involved in identifying and caring for people with autism must take account of.
The bill will make 50,000 Scots with autism visible. But there is no question of this visibility negatively impacting upon other groups. Rather, it will ensure funds are spent wisely and to best effect. Autism is not a learning difficulty, nor is it a mental illness. But at present autism is often misdiagnosed as these conditions, with catastrophic results and expensive, unnecessary and ineffective treatment. Right now at least one in three adults with autism is experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to lack of support and incorrect diagnosis.
Finally¸ the money question. Implementing the bill would not necessarily be more expensive. Central to the Autism Bill is the achievable aim that professionals become more effective and efficient, not through expensive training but rather through better sharing of, and access to, existing training, research and information. There are areas of Scotland where good practice exists. By sharing this expertise nationally, we will see the creation of a joined up approach that helps give people with autism the right kind of support, when they need it.
According to the National Audit Office, if local authorities identify and support just 4% of adults with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism where individuals are of average or above average intelligence, services will become cost-neutral over time. The more people who are identified and supported, the greater the savings that can be made. But instead Scotland loses £2.3 billion a year due to ineffectual support for people with autism.