Caroline Dineage 

Caroline Dineage MP responding on behalf of the Government

MPs marked World Autism Awareness Week on Thursday 29th March by holding a Backbench Business Committee debate on autism. 

Backbench Business Committee debates are general debates that involve no vote. This one was held on the final day of the Parliamentary term before MPs go back to their constituencies for Easter. 

It was therefore heartening that so many MPs wanted to speak that there wasn’t enough time to hear from them all. Many MPs also told us they had to cut down their speeches. 

Cheryl Gillian

Chair of the APPGA, the Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillian MP 

The chair of the APPGA, the Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan MP, asked for the debate and she was supported in her application by 32 MPs of all parties. 

To start the debate Dame Cheryl tables what is called a ‘motion’. Her motion was:

“That this House notes that World Autism Awareness Week runs from 26 March to 2 April; believes that there is a lack of understanding of the needs of autistic people and their families; and calls on the Government to improve support for autistic children in school, employment support for autistic adults, to reduce waiting times for autism diagnosis, and to support a public awareness campaign so people can make the changes that will help the UK become autism-friendly.”

Her speech covered the topics in the motion and also praised our charity’s Too Much Information campaign. She also spoke about the Autism Act’s upcoming ten year anniversary, criminal justice and voting. 

MPs from different political parties took part. This included Kevin Brennan MP who said that he wanted the debate to raise awareness of autism, but also lead to action from the Government. Daniel Zeichner MP praised the Autism Hour campaign. Helen Hayes MP spoke about a young autistic constituent who spent over a year in mental health hospitals, highlighting the challenges in making sure autistic people get the right mental health support. Thangham Debbonnaire MP highlighted that autistic people were more likely to be lonely and called on the new Minister for Loneliness Tracey Crouch to make sure that the strategy on loneliness to be published later this year looked at autism specifically. 

Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon and Martin Vickers MP spoke about the need to address the high level of exclusions from school among autistic children and young people. 

Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP spoke about her son James, who is on the spectrum. She spoke about the important contribution autistic people make to society. ‘We need minds that look at the world in a completely different way’, she said.

Leading for the Labour Party in the debate, Paula Sherriff MP, the Shadow Minister for Mental Health said that whilst autism was not a mental health condition, many people with autism struggled with mental health. She added that people had to wait too long for the right support with adults waiting a long time for a diagnosis and children and with half telling our charity they wait longer than a year for help, a statistic from our Held Back campaign

Responding for the Government, Minister for Care, Caroline Dineage MP, welcomed the contributions she had heard today and praised Dame Cheryl Gillan for securing the debate and for introducing the Autism Act. 

She acknowledged that people had to wait too long for a diagnosis and said that there was too much variation in waiting times across the country. She highlighted that from April, diagnosis waiting times will be recorded by the NHS. This is a win from our Autism Diagnosis Crisis campaign. On education she promised that the Government would be responding to our charity’s Held Back campaign and she also promised to meet with Helen Hayes MP so that her department could learn from her constituent’s case.

Our charity will look again at the detail of all of the speeches and will follow up specifically with the Minister to make sure the Government are taking action on the key points raised.