Autism bill set to become law


A private members’ bill that aims to improve services for people with autism is set to become law.

The autism bill completed its final stage in the House of Lords on 22 October and will become England’s first impairment-specific act once it receives royal assent.

The bill, which had been introduced in the Commons by Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan, was drafted by the National Autistic Society (NAS) on behalf of a coalition of autism charities, and secured cross-party support.

The NAS warned health and social care services that they could now face legal action if they failed to provide support for people with autism.

But the passing of the bill has not been universally welcomed.

Adrian Whyatt, chair of the campaigning user group Neurodiversity International, said there were major omissions in the bill, and highlighted its failure to deal with sensory access, communication issues and user-empowerment.

He said it was an “old-fashioned medical model-type bill designed to create more traditional services”.  

And he criticised the failure to include an amendment that would have guaranteed the involvement of user-led organisations in drawing up the government’s adult autism strategy and associated guidance.

Whyatt said it would only be clear whether the new act was “an opportunity or a threat” once it had been implemented.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, said thousands of adults with autism had told the charity they were experiencing serious mental health difficulties due to a lack of support.

He said: “After a year of lobbying, this is the watershed moment they have been waiting for – this law could literally transform lives.”

The bill received government backing during its Commons committee stage, and now includes various government measures.

These include a duty on the government to introduce a legally-enforceable adult autism strategy for England by April 2010, and guidance for councils and NHS bodies by the end of 2010.

The guidance will include measures to strengthen information about the number of people with autism and their needs; improve the planning of services as children move to adulthood; and ensure better access to services for adults with autism.

The bill also includes a statutory duty on councils and NHS bodies to follow the guidance.

Gillan said the bill’s success was “a triumph for people with autism and their families” and “a real testament to the overwhelming level of parliamentary support for this chronically excluded group”.

22 October 2009