The first national strategy on autism has been savaged by leading campaigners with autism for its failure to demand real change from councils and health trusts.
The new government strategy, which aims to help adults with autism in England “live independently in a society that understands them”, was promised as part of last November’s Autism Act.
But there will be little new government money – just £500,000 to help develop autism awareness training – with the strategy focusing instead on “how to make existing policies work better”.
A plan describing how improvements will be delivered in its first year will be published later this month, with statutory guidance for health and social care bodies due in December.
The strategy calls for a “fundamental change” in which a diagnosis of autism “leads to a person-centred assessment of need” which will be “the key to unlocking care services throughout a person’s lifetime”, including an offer of personal budgets and direct payments.
And it reminds public bodies of their duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act to improve access to services in areas such as education, healthcare and public transport.
Several measures around mental health and employment announced by the government last December will also apply to adults with autism, including access to internships, and more flexibility with access to work payments.
A national autism programme board, co-chaired by Phil Hope, the care services minister, will oversee progress on the strategy and include at least one person with autism. The government has also promised to review progress on the strategy in 2013.
The Autistic Rights Movement UK (ARM UK), which is run by people with autism, welcomed the publication of an autism strategy, and the new programme board, but said the strategy was unlikely to deliver real change.
It said it was “not only bitterly disappointed but frankly baffled by the language used” in the strategy, with words such as “may” and “might” instead of “must” and “will”.
ARM UK said that a strategy “as weak and equivocal as this one makes the Autism Act meaningless”, although it added: “It might be that the delivery plan is the ‘missing part’ without which the part that we have fails to make sense. We certainly hope so.”
It also criticised the “derisory” funding of £500,000, even though last summer’s National Audit Office report said investing in services for people with autism could end up saving tens of millions of pounds.
And ARM UK called for people with autism to have far more involvement in “shaping the changes that are so urgently needed to achieve true equality”, and said the strategy should be subject to a proper public consultation.
It also called for “comprehensive and fully funded structures at local, regional and national levels”, such as a national forum for autistic people, regional autism forums and local autism partnership boards, similar to those that came out of the Valuing People learning difficulties white paper.
Anya Ustaszewski, who has autism and is vice-chair of the strategy’s external reference group, described the strategy as “an exciting milestone” but said it was important that the delivery plan “contains clear measures for local authorities and support from the Department of Health to deliver them”.
Meanwhile, the National Autistic Society Scotland and other campaigners and organisations took part in an event at the Scottish parliament calling for a national autism strategy for Scotland, backed up by a Scottish autism bill.
4 March 2010