World Autism Awareness Week [28 April 2016]


You can watch my full speech  here –

I thank the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for bringing forward this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in it and to put my full support behind the motion.

As I prepared my speaking notes, it became obvious that, while Members in this Chamber have an important role to play in raising awareness of autism, the most valuable insights will always come from those with direct experience of the condition. They are the ones who know whether services are working effectively and they know through experience what changes we should make to create a more autism-friendly society. It is, therefore, appropriate to make sure that their voices are heard in the House of Commons today. There are two people in particular that I will highlight. The first is a constituent of mine whose son has autism, and the second is Vicki McCarthy, the founder of Reach for Autism, a non-profit organisation operating in my constituency of Inverclyde.

I have a constituent who moved to Inverclyde with her six-year-old son in 2003, and her experiences raise a number of concerns. She raised a concern with me regarding an inconsistency among school staff: some worked very well with autistic children, while others lacked a basic understanding of situations that could make an autistic child uncomfortable. She also highlighted a lack of age-appropriate activities for teenagers with autism. Teenage years can be a difficult time for anyone, let alone those with autism. My constituent believes that greater co-ordination between social services and parents could lead to activities that better reflect the needs of their teenage children.

My constituent also raised concerns about the bureaucracy and poor communication of local social services. She felt that, while access to information was easily obtained through schools, contacting social services was a laborious process, with no guarantee of assistance at the end of it. My constituent summarised the situation best when she said:

“I would describe our life as one big battle for every tiny scrap of help and as someone who is naturally quite a shy person this has brought its own difficulties.”

Many parents with an autistic child will undoubtedly relate to those concerns, and we must recognise their commitment in continuing to campaign tirelessly for greater support to be made available.

One such organisation offering that support is Reach for Autism, which was established in Inverclyde by Vicki McCarthy. Reach for Autism offers a wide range of support, from teacher training to mentoring programmes. It currently supports more than 60 autistic people, including 44 children, eight young adults, four volunteers and a member of staff. It is difficult to overstate the importance of those services, not only for autistic people, but for their families. Lifeline services such as those established by Vicki can transform people’s lives.

If we invest in people with autism from a young age, we can decrease the chances of autistic people suffering from mental health problems as a result of social isolation or low self-esteem. That investment ensures that people with autism feel valued and respected, are prepared for employment and can live more independent lives.

Yet establishing and maintaining that support has been difficult. Reach for Autism has no core funding, and running costs are met entirely through donations and its own fund raising. The organisation and its vital services simply would not exist without the energetic support of volunteers and the determined efforts of Vicki. Whether it is individuals and their families or organisations themselves, those touched by autism are faced with the same obstacles: a lack of funding; a lack of certainty over future support; and a lack of public understanding of the condition.

I hope that other Members will join me in declaring that people with autism, their families and the organisations that support them deserve better than this never-ending uphill struggle. All people, including those with autism, deserve the chance to realise their full potential, and by increasing awareness we can take important steps towards becoming a more autism-friendly society. I know that I am better for my increased knowledge and would like to thank Vicki and all those who have raised my awareness and understanding.