Dame Cheryl Gillan: I hope all MPs will receive autism training
Following the establishment of the first ever autism training session for MPs, we spoke to Dame Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham and staunch advocate of raising awareness of autism around Westminster. To assess the response of front line services to these efforts, we also spoke to Christine Edwards, CEO of the Kent Autistic Trust, a charity that provides care across the South East to those on the autistic spectrum.
Dame Cheryl has been vocal in the Commons on the topic of autism awareness. Most recently, she did this by raising repeated questions during Prime Minister’s Questions, about the need for MPs to further understand the needs of their autistic constituents.
Each MP has an average of 1,000 people on the autistic spectrum within their constituency, and across the country as a whole there are over 700,000 autistic adults and children. She told us:
“I was delighted on Wednesday 1 March 2019 to sponsor the first ever autism training session for Members of Parliament, led by the National Autistic Society. Although we do not currently have the exact numbers, we are confident that over 90 MPs attended, and this is an encouraging sign for future training events for members and staff.
“Each Member of Parliament probably has around 1,000 people with autism in their constituency. I believe it is therefore crucial that all Members of Parliament understand what life can be like for people with autism so that they may better provide for their needs and support their constituents and their families.
“This training provided Members of Parliament with a powerful insight into what it was like to be autistic and why autistic people feel that society is currently not always working for them. They also received advice from my Labour colleague, Thangam Debbonaire MP who spoke about her experiences with autism-friendly advice surgeries, with many MPs now encouraged to run their own surgeries, as well as train their staff in this area.
“With such good cross party attendance, I hope eventually to ensure that all MPs across the House of Commons can receive training, as well as members of the House of Lords, and therefore we will be offering further training sessions.
“In support of this goal, and on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group, I have written to the Secretaries of State for each government department to ask what they are doing to improve autism awareness and develop specialist training for all their frontline public service staff.
"I have already received positive correspondence from the Health and Social Care Department, who recently announced that Health Care England is developing an Autism Core Skills and Competency Framework for health and care staff to be in place by July.
“In addition, the Justice Department have extended the number of autism accredited prisons and probation services, and I have welcomed the introduction by the Education Department last September of the inclusion of autism in Initial Teacher Training . We have had a further meeting with the Department of Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi to build on the Education Report that we produced under the authorship of Huw Merriman MP and Maria Caulfield MP.
"However, through a number of inquiry sessions in progress since the introduction of the Autism Act 2009, and as part of its tenth anniversary, we are conducting enquiries into employment, mental health and other areas which require improved strategies with a plan that this will be published later this year. We know there is still much more to be done.
“With this year being the tenth anniversary, we have a prime opportunity to examine what we as Members of Parliament can do to have a better understanding of the needs of “all” our constituents and help create a society that works for autistic children and adults.
"I have an overarching vision to see all public-facing staff, no matter where they work, be trained to better understand autism so they can improve the life experience for the over 700,000 autistic adults and children in need of better services in the UK.”
Christine Edwards, CEO of The Kent Autistic Trust, was fulsome in her praise of Dame Cheryl’s efforts. She told the Review that “Providers, people on the autistic spectrum and their families applaud Dame Cheryl’s efforts to spread autism awareness to leaders and key decision makers.”
She added that “Knowledge, information and understanding is crucial to ensure that support and front line services are effective, appropriate and sustainable. It is refreshing to see that Dame Cheryl’s passion for people on the autistic spectrum strikes at the heart of government by facilitating this autism awareness training. This will help to promote understanding about a significant population who are often misunderstood and undervalued.”