Thousands of adults with autism are missing out on vital services in Scotland and the rest of the UK

Liberal Democrat MSP Hugh O’Donnell has proposed a member’s bill at Holyrood that would require the Scottish Government to take the lead in co-ordinating services for children and adults with autism ­spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Autism isn’t a mental health issue or a learning disability issue, in terms of statutory obligation it falls. As a result the service package available is patchy to say the least. A lot of local authorities don’t even know how many people there are in their area with a diagnosis of autism.

The National Autistic Society Scotland, which last week launched its own campaign entitled We Exist – A Bill For Autism, A Bill For Scotland, says 94% of people it surveyed ­wanted to see a Scottish autism ­strategy. Figures compiled by the National Audit Office suggest that failure to meet the needs of people with autism is costing the Scottish economy £2.3bn a year through lost job opportunities and the increased burden on public services and families.

With the passing of the Autism Act at Westminster in November 2009 and the establishment of strategic action plans in Wales and Northern Ireland in the past two years, Scotland is now the only part of the UK without a central strategy for people on the autism spectrum.

Support services for autism, which affects an estimated 50,000 people in Scotland, are currently run by health boards and local authorities and can range widely, including speech and language therapy, classroom support, social work and respite care.

The proposed bill would make it a duty for ministers to draw up a ­strategy for autism, incorporating national standards. Mr O’Donnell hopes the bill will be ready to present to Holyrood by the summer, ­following public consultation.

At the moment there is a postcode lottery and we need a national approach. Government is supposed to take a lead in these ­matters. It’s not good enough for them to bat it back to health boards and local authorities.

The idea is to make ministers responsible for a regular annual review of where local authorities are in terms of developing co-ordinated services for people with autism. In a survey of people with ASDs ­carried out by the National Autistic Society Scotland last year, one-third of respondents said they had had to go to a tribunal to get the right support.

There are also big information gaps. Last year, four local authorities were unable to provide figures for the first Scottish Government survey of the number of adults in the country diagnosed with autism.

Parents and carers have spoken of the difficulties involved in transition between schools, or moving from one local authority area to another, while young adults often find themselves effectively barred from employment because of a lack of basic support.

NAS Scotland says the Scottish autism strategy needs to include a duty on the Government to identify the numbers of people with autism. Councils should be required to draw up service plans and train staff. Carol Evans, NAS national director for Scotland, says: “The Government must recognise that people with autism should not be disadvantaged, and support our campaign.”

  • About 50,000 people in Scotland are believed to have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
  • About 4900 schoolchildren with ASDs have additional support needs.
  • Half of all appeals to the Additional Support Needs Tribunal are made on behalf of children with autism.
  • Only half of specialist teachers in Scotland have had autism-specific training.
  • Fewer than three-fifths of councils offer specialist units for secondary-age children with ASDs.
  • More than half (53%) of adults with autism say they received no support on leaving school.
  • Only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time employment, yet 79% of those on incapacity benefit said they wanted to work.
  • The National Audit Office believes services for adults with ­Asperger’s syndrome would be cost-neutral if 4% of those adults were offered support, due to savings in medical treatment and benefits from those who could find work. Supporting 6% could save £38m per year UK-wide.
  • 95% of people in the UK surveyed by the National Autistic Society believed councils and health boards should have a legal duty to improve services for people with autism.