Is the new autism strategy any good?

For the full strategy, please click here

If you’re based in the England, you may be aware of ‘The National Strategy For Autistic Children, Young People and Adults 2021 to 2026.’

Basically, it’s the government’s plan to make our (autistic) lives better for the next 5 years and address the barriers we experience. The big question is, is it actually any good? And will this translate into beneficial changes?

The beginning 

First of all, it makes all the right noises about how our lives need to improve and they patted themselves on the back for things the government has done in recent years (which could have been a lot more). Anyway, it seemed to make cliche statements to start with that lack substance, but that might just be standard corporate communication that was always going to be there. 

The key issues are mentioned, from too many autistics in inpatient mental health units to diagnosis and shorter life expectancy. The first chapter is an overview of autism and why the strategy is needed. So nothing I didn’t know before, to be honest. 

Acceptance and understanding 

So the next chapter addresses improving understanding and acceptance of autism within society. Which is good, as awareness just made people familiar with the word autism, but the average person doesn’t know a lot about it. However, I’m not sure how much a government can force people to accept and understand autism (they can’t). They claim they will also focus on improving the public sector and transport, but we need the same access to everything in life, not just public services. This doesn’t go far enough for me. 

It’s also acknowledged that marginalised autistics (Women, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC) need to be included with understanding and acceptance. However, they didn’t specify how they were going to achieve this. So again, right noises, but what actions will follow to ensure this happens? This appears to be less clear. 

Education

The next chapter focused on education which is a huge issue for many of us. 10 years after leaving compulsory education, I’m still having nightmares; the bullies and ableist students were in my dreams as recently as last night. FYI you may be interested in my thread about my educational experiences below. 

Back to the strategy, the claims of what they’d like to achieve in education include autistics living well, finding work/higher education, and improve the transition into adulthood, so fewer autistics end up in inpatient mental health settings or unemployed. They then go further by ensuring education staff have better training (so we stay in school), we’re identified early and have positive experiences in education. I like the level of ambition, but is it possible to achieve all this in 5 years? considering the significant issues autistic people face in education? 

Specific plans include £600,000 of funding for training in autism for educational professionals. To me, that figure seems to be extremely low if this £600,000 aims to cover all the schools in the England (which I’m assuming is the case). A quick google search informed me that there are 24,360 schools in the UK, so if you divide £600,000 by 24360, that leads to a grand total of £24.63 per school for autism training. Not even per staff member, per SCHOOL. That’s nowhere near enough. That wouldn’t even pay for an autistic adult to run training for a school for an hour. It’s simply not good enough! They claim that this training will cover how to identify autistic girls, but what about the barriers BIPOC autistics and LGBTQIA+ face regarding diagnosis that the government said they would address at the start of the strategy? Also, what about the fact that autistic people are speaking up against the problems gendering autism causes? This training certainly could do with some significant improvements.

There is also talk of anti-bullying campaigns. They were around when I was in school, they didn’t work, and by what autistic students have been saying in more recent years, it doesn’t seem these anti-bullying campaigns have a significant effect. This feels like a wasted effort, in my view as if anti-bullying campaigns of the past were so brilliant, then why is this still a problem?

The government is also spending £8.6 million with engaging with families in the SEND system, but unless this translates to a better service provision and autistic students needs to be met without delay, is the £8.6 million well spent? Time will tell. 

Employment

The government plans to utilise the Disability Confident Scheme to help get employment and expand the civil service’s Autism Exchange Programme (but does this scheme lead to real and permanent jobs? What is the success rate?) I have questions. They also plan to upskill disability employment advisors and work coaches to help us into work. Additionally, they plan to use health model offices which specifically helps disabled people into employment. I don’t think any of these are bad ideas in theory, but I do think they could be doing more to work with employers to help make the workplace more autism-friendly. 

Healthcare

Naturally, waiting times for diagnosis came up as an issue (this strategy would be severely lacking if it didn’t address it). They plan to reduce waiting times to a maximum of 13 weeks and are investing £13 million into reducing waiting times. Again this seems to be a positive thing, but it’s hard to work out if this will be enough (If anybody does have expertise in this area, please let me know, and I can update how much help the £13 million will be). They also mention the diagnostic issues girls experience, which is good, but at the start of the strategy, Sajid Javid said 

“For me, our goal must be nothing less than making sure autistic people from all

backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and ages.”

So why are only autistic girls mentioned in experiencing diagnostic issues? When people who are part of ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA+ have expressed difficulties in receiving a diagnosis too? 

Also, only £2.5 million of the £13 million focuses on adult diagnosis and post-diagnosis support; but I hear more adults seeking diagnosis as each year goes by? This seems strange to me, but it would be good if the government could justify how the government made this decision. 

Crucially there is also an emphasis on improving health care staff’s knowledge and understanding of autism through the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training and specific training for social workers. Ultimately I hope this will translate into better care for us and make healthcare more accessible, as good training for public service workers can be the difference between life and death for us. 

The healthcare section intends to reduce healthcare inequalities by researching why we experience them and carrying out routine health checks in special schools. Again, these seem like positive steps, but we will see how much of a difference they will make in the future. 

Community support and inpatient health care

There is also significant emphasis on autistic people being detained in inpatient mental health units. The government stresses that it needs to become unlawful for people to be detained for being autistic. I’m disgusted that this has been lawful for so long, and I hope this matter changes urgently. There is also an aim to focus on home support for mental health, which is good, along with acknowledgement of the abuse autistic people commonly face in inpatient mental health units and that £40 million will be invested to address this problem. The government is also seeking to speed up discharges from inpatient units. This sounds promising, but I’m commenting as an outsider as I have never been admitted to an inpatient mental health unit. If you’re autistic and have ever been in the UK’s inpatient mental health system, please share your comments at the bottom of this article. 

Justice System 

The final section addresses the justice system where staff misunderstanding autistic people’s behaviour commonly comes up as an issue along with the need for reasonable adjustments in the justice system. Most of the focus is on staff training across the justice system and introducing the new neurodivergent support manager role in each prison. These sound like reasonable steps, but I’m not sure they are enough? Especially when you consider the Osime Brown case and the awful experiences he had in our justice system as a black autistic man. 

Again I have never contacted the justice system through personal or professional experience (apart from one phone call to a police officer). Again if you have more expertise in this area, please comment or get in touch as I can’t fully critique this part of the strategy. 

So is it any good?

It is mediocre at best, most suggestions are not bad, but too often, they don’t go far enough in addressing specific issues that marginalised autistics experience. For me, the education section is particularly lacking and doesn’t provide me with much hope. Also, some in the autistic community have highlighted there is nothing about helping the elderly autistic and improving their quality of life in the strategy. 

Some of the points the government says they will address are good, but it’s hard to say at this point if they will actually deliver on them or not. However, there is still room for progress, and I believe more funding is needed to address some of these issues than the government has set aside. 

What do you think? Please share your comments below! 
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