Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Autism Empowerment Strategy: Motion [Private Members]
Sinn Féin is happy to support the motion. I thank our colleagues in the Labour Party for bringing it forward. I was delighted to hear the Minister of State mention the autism strategy. I had often wondered what had happened to it. People will not be shocked to hear me say that two years ago, on World Autism Day 2019, I introduced a motion on behalf of Sinn Féin on development of an autism strategy, which was unanimously passed. It is important we have that strategy. It has been missing from this country for too long. It remains my understanding that a committee was to be established and sit for approximately six months to hold public hearings and consultations on the issue. It is important that happens, but it is only one small step.
All of us are regularly contacted by parents who have a child they believe may have autism and they are struggling to get an assessment or have just received an assessment. We cannot say often enough that everything that needs to be done is a battle and that is wrong. We often refer to particular situations as a crisis. It is fine to describe something as a crisis if it is happening for only a short period and it is was unforeseen, but this has been happening for years and so it cannot be described as a crisis. We know this is happening. We know that there are children who have autism that cannot access an ASD placement and that for those who do access one, it is usually miles from their home and they are not eligible for transport. We have to question how fair and realistic it is ask a child to endure a really long journey to and from school every day. We know this is happening.
Children who are diagnosed with autism are treated as second class citizens. They cannot get the services they need, including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, class placement, school transport, additional help in school and so on. It is wrong and unfair that access to all of these services is dependent on someone who is willing to listen and be on board and support families. I often hear people say that without X or Y, they would be lost. We have an excellent social worker in Kilkenny who is involved with the early intervention team. Time and again, people say to me that only for her they would be lost. That is not acceptable. These are rights that people have and they need to be respected.
How many more debates must we have on this matter? I agree with Deputy Sherlock's point in regard to the Minister of State. I, too, genuinely believe she wants to what is right and that she has been trying to do that, but we need to see real action. We cannot have a situation where children are placed on a waiting list for an assessment and then placed on another waiting list for occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy. Parents are tearing their hair out trying to do their best for their children.
In regard to ASD schools, we rarely talk about them because they are so scarce. There is one ASD school for the whole of Kilkenny, city and county, which is unacceptable. When children move to primary school, they face another battle. When they move on to secondary school they face a serious battle to get additional help. To get help at exam time, a student has to have a written diagnosis. Often, children who have a diagnosis and are in mainstream school have to go back to the drawing board to get a different diagnosis to access an ASD class or school. It is not rocket science. There are so many groups and parents that can tell us how to do this correctly. An autism empowerment strategy is important. This strategy works well in other countries and we need to start looking to those countries.
I do not have time to speak at length on adult services, which is another battle. There are not many who are lucky to have an adult service in their area when they move from children to adult services. There is a job of work to do. I welcome that we are having this debate and I hope we see some action from it.