Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Autism Empowerment Strategy: Motion [Private Members]
I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion. I am joined by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.
Last September, I spoke in the House about my vision for the provision of disability services for people of all ages in the coming years. My vision is ambitious and I make no apology for that. People with special needs deserve nothing less than the best services that the State can provide.
This discussion focuses on a number of strands, including health, equality, education and inclusion. It shows that every person in society, regardless of whether he or she has a disability, is valued and must be given every possible opportunity and support to realise his or her potential. Given that April is world autism month, it is fitting that the House has an opportunity to debate the matters raised in this Private Members' motion.
On assuming ministerial responsibility for disability matters, one of the issues that I sought to remedy was the number of overdue assessments of need for children across the country. At the end of June, the backlog had risen to approximately 6,500 for a number of reasons. By working with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, I secured funding of €7.8 million to address this issue. I am pleased to inform the House that, by the end of last month, we had reduced the waiting list to approximately 1,860 cases, a reduction of over 70%. I thank the HSE, its staff and clinicians around the country for these impressive results. It is important to note that this progress continues to be made despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. More importantly, the clearing of the backlog will allow services to focus on interventions to support the child, which is the key piece.
Ensuring that these therapies can be delivered in the timeliest way is where the progressing disability services for children and young people programme, PDS, comes in. It will completely change how we deliver services and supports for children from birth to 18 years of age. The HSE is establishing a total of 91 children's disability networks across the nine community healthcare organisations, CHOs. To date, 41 of these network teams are already in place, with just a handful of managers left to be appointed. Under PDS, teams will provide specialist support services for all children with significant disabilities regardless of their diagnoses, where they live or where they go to school. It will also mean the end of the unacceptable situation where children can "age out" of early intervention teams and will also help to tackle the current waiting lists, which we all know are at an unacceptable level.
I have requested that the HSE pause the removal of existing special schools-based therapy posts to allow for additional engagement at local and national levels to ensure full clarity for all stakeholders. Another important step is the recruitment of additional therapists. In that regard, I have secured funding for 100 new therapy posts. Recruitment for these has already started.
At the start of this month, I announced our intention to develop an autism innovation strategy under the remit of the Department for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The strategy's focus in the short term will on delivering tangible solutions to the challenges, needs and experiences of autistic people in a number of key areas. There have been questions about what "innovation" means and why it was chosen over "empowerment". For me, they are interlinked. The four key pillars of the strategy will be health, education, employment and housing. The strategy's aim is for each pillar to pinpoint and develop innovations in its respective area that can help to empower people with autism. To the Labour Party I say that I have been taking notes in recent months. One cannot achieve empowerment without action. These innovations will help to make up those actions. I have put the focus on the innovations because, without them, we cannot deliver on empowerment.
I am excited about the autism innovation strategy and what I hope it will achieve. The first step is to establish a working group for the strategy, which I will chair. This group will begin the planning of the strategy and identify the key innovations to be included. This process will require a cross-departmental approach and I look forward to working with my ministerial colleagues in the Government on same.
For the strategy to be successful, stakeholder consultation is vital. We need people with the lived experience to help to inform where and what actions are needed. I assure the House that meaningful stakeholder engagement will be a cornerstone of this process. I also confirm that I hope to initiate the expressions of interest process within the next month.
I welcome the opportunity to announce a new autism initiative that I have been developing with the HSE over the past number of months. Later this year, we will establish an autism phone helpline on a pilot basis. It will be a major support to autistic people of all ages. Once in operation, the helpline will aim to answer general questions about autism, highlight where and how people can access support services in their local areas, talk through how to go about explaining autism to other people, and provide information on how to access welfare services, community health care, employment and so on. I look forward to working with the HSE autism programme board on the delivery of this. In particular, I thank Ms Breda Crehan-Roche and Mr. Bernard O'Regan for the support they have given me in recent months during the work on this initiative.
The Government is fully committed to the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that relate to the participation and involvement of people with disabilities and their representative organisations in the development of policy. The recently established Disability Participation and Consultation Network has been created for that purpose. I note that the network's membership includes people with autism and organisations representative of people with autism. AsIAm is a grant-funded member of the network and central to its operation.
In respect of the motion’s calls for legislation, as Deputies will be aware, work is advancing to commence the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 by June 2022. It was great to be part of the recent decision support service event earlier this month.
Improving disability services for all children with additional needs is a priority for the Government. I am confident that this process is well under way and that we are working our way towards having services readily accessible for all children and young people who need them at any stage in their lives. I have taken note.