For the first time, children and young people are included in the Government’s national autism strategy.
Ministers want life to be “fundamentally better” for autistic children, adults and their families by 2026.
The Government’s new ‘National strategy for autistic children, young people and adults’ is the first of its kind to cover children and young people as well as adults, and rightly focuses on supporting autistic people to live their lives in their communities – widening the focus beyond social care and health services.
This new strategy sets out the Government’s vision for what autistic people’s and their families’ lives will be like in five years’ time across six priority areas.
The six areas are: improving understanding and acceptance of autism within society; improving autistic children and young people’s access to education and supporting positive transitions into adulthood; supporting more autistic people into employment; tackling health and care inequalities; building the right support in the community; and improving support within the criminal and youth justice systems.
The strategy details the steps national and local government, the NHS and others will take towards this vision.
The priorities in the first year of the implementation plan (2021-22) include improving research, innovation and examples of best practice, improving data collection and reporting, and strengthening governance, leadership and accountability. These ‘enablers’ are required to deliver on the strategy and demonstrate progress on actions.
“It acknowledges there is ‘much more to do’”
At the local level, the expectation is that local authorities and the NHS will work together, and with relevant local partners, to take forward the strategy’s key priorities. This should be done in accordance with their existing legal duties.
Statutory guidance on the Adult Autism Strategy (2015), which sets out local authorities’ and NHS organisations’ duties to support autistic adults, remains in force – so, local areas must continue to deliver on existing requirements, including having autism partnership boards.
For children, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (2015) continues to place duties on local authorities, NHS organisations and schools in respect of autistic children and young people.
Funding of £74.88 million has been announced for the first year of the strategy, mostly funnelled through the NHS. It includes £600,000 to fund training for staff in early years settings, schools and colleges – to improve the experience of autistic children in the education system and prepare them for adulthood – and £600,000 for the extension of an early identification programme developed in Bradford.
The strategy sets out progress since the groundbreaking Autism Act 2009 and the first two national strategies (2010 and 2014) – for example, on increasing awareness of autism in society and ensuring the availability of autism diagnostic services across the country.
But it acknowledges there is “still much more to do” to ensure that autistic people have equal opportunities to the rest of society, access to the services they need to have good health and wellbeing, and can participate fully in their communities.
People with autism and their experiences deserve to be at the heart of this strategy, and councils are doing what they can to support them locally.
Councils stand ready to help achieve the Government’s ambitions for autistic people, and the upcoming Spending Review is an opportunity for ministers to fully fund support in the long term.
Authors Councillor David Fothergill is Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board and Councillor Anntoinette Bramble is Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board.