Thursday, 23 June 2022
Autism Bill 2022: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for an autism strategy to be prepared and published, and to provide for related matters.
It gives me great pleasure to stand in Dáil Éireann alongside my party leader, Deputy Bacik, to introduce the Autism Bill 2022. In April 2021, the Labour Party tabled a motion calling for a national autism strategy but over a year later, in June 2022, we are still hearing stories of a lack of school places, of a 36-month wait for assessments and basic interventions, of concerns about dental care, mental health services and employment opportunities for children and young people who have autism. It is time for us, as a party, to move on from the motion that was passed in April last year and to produce legislation that underpins the responsibility of the Government to produce a national autism strategy. Our Bill is based on similar legislation in Northern Ireland that was enacted in 2011 and on the English Autism Act 2009.
Our Bill obliges the Government to produce a cross-departmental autism strategy and requires all other relevant Ministers and public bodies to co-operate with its implementation. The strategy must outline how the needs of people with autism, in terms of access to education, other public services, employment and social inclusion can be met by public service providers. It must include an emphasis on how the needs of families and carers can be met by setting out a roadmap of actions for the development and improvement of family support services. The Minister shall be responsible for monitoring the implementation of the strategy by all of the Ministers and public bodies. Each relevant Minister and public body must publish a progress report on a three-yearly basis, which gives updates on implementation of the strategy.
Our Bill states that the strategy must provide for public service providers to set up data collection systems to identify and record the number of persons within their client bases who have autism and to calculate current and future needs for services. As was outlined earlier today, the fact that we will need school places for young people with autism is completely predictable. We cannot allow the scandal to persist whereby 268 young people with autism do not know, in June 2022, whether they will have a school place in September, not to mention the 15,500 young people who have to leave their own catchment area in order to access a school place.
Under the strategy, the Minister must establish a public autism awareness campaign. This is not just for those who have autism and their families. Every single member of this Republic must be part of the strategy and part of the solution. Provision must be made for autism awareness training for persons in the public service who frequently deal with adults with autism. The Minister must commission research into the prevalence of autism in the State, including among adults, and into the levels of need. A pathway of care must be developed which clearly maps services for adults with autism, aimed at ensuring the consistent availability of those services across the State. The strategy must also provide for the development of a range of services to address the needs of adults with autism, including in healthcare, education, employment and social inclusion throughout their lives. I recall being involved in the development of a comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities but no Department wanted to deal with it. The then Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection did not want it because it related to disabilities. The Department of Health did not want it because it said it related to employment. In the end, it landed into the Department of Justice.
There must be a best practice model of service delivery, assessment, diagnosis and intervention for service users with autism drawing on international expertise and guidance to health service providers on how to meet the needs of adults with autism, their families and carers. There must also be a detailed examination of the needs of families and carers and how these are to be met by developing and providing appropriate support services. There must be a clear system of accountability, a word that comes up again and again, and scrutiny in relation to autism service provision, to be overseen by the Minister. The Minister must keep the autism strategy under review and must publish a revised strategy at intervals of no more than seven years.
We are seeking a legislative underpinning of these rights. We need solution-driven policy and legislation. The people of Ireland who have autism in their families deserve no less. The same is true of every other citizen of the country. We need to do what has been done in Northern Ireland and England and provide a legislative basis for an autism Act in 2022.