The National Autistic Society Autism Accreditation programme has a long history dating back to the early 1990s. In response to the 1990 Community Care Act, and a number of high profile reports of poor practice within care services, The National Autistic Society appointed a working party that met on a monthly basis throughout 1991 and early 1992 at the then NAS Headquarters at Willesden Lane. The deliberations concluded with the Society producing two written papers in response to the content of the 1990 Act describing the expectations of quality and practice within residential care services and within education and training provision. It also resulted in the publishing of a guidance booklet for services provided by The National Autistic Society and our affiliated local autistic societies.
In April 1992 further discussions took place, between professionals, in response to the findings of the working party and The National Autistic Society's Chief Executive, requested that there be an investigation into the possibility of setting up of a scheme that would establish and regulate autism standards of care and education for The National Autistic Society and their affiliated local autistic societies.
At that time, in order to be affiliated to The National Autistic Society, an organisation simply applied and was affiliated without any checks on quality, specialism or viability. The National Autistic Society's Board had grown increasingly concerned at possible reputational risk, especially as at that time there were reports of poor practice in a number of services claiming expertise in autism, highlighted by the 1991 judicial inquiry at Scotforth House, a children’s service in Lancashire where there was serious abuse of autistic pupils.
These developments coincided with the government-commissioned The Quality of Care enquiry chaired by Lady Howe and a move by local authorities to a more business-like approach to the purchasing of services from providers. Consequently, evidence of high quality care and support and a greater emphasis on value for money were becoming increasingly important.
An application was made to the Department of Health (DoH) with a proposal to develop ‘autism-specific’ standards covering, in the first instance, care of autistic children and adults. Education was to be considered separately as the department could only fund work relating to care. The application was received very positively and with help from the DoH The National Autistic Society secured a ‘section 64’* grant for £80,000. This was to set up and run the scheme for two years, with the National Autistic Society putting in additional funds to immediately expand to education and underwrite any shortfall in costs. At the time there were no formal standards in place for the regulation and inspection of care- including for children.
In late July 1992 The National Autistic Society invited all of the service providing agencies to an initial two-day meeting in Warwick. It was at this meeting that standards began to be developed for the Autism Accreditation programme. Early in the process it was decided that schools and adult services would work in parallel with joint information sharing to help to facilitate consistency across the sectors. Key representatives took the lead in their identified fields to produce the standards.
Pilot projects for both education and adult provision were quickly established and work began at the NAS Sybil Elgar School, NAS Overcliffe House and Wirral Autistic Society’s Raby Hall. As they became familiar with the expectations of the quality standards, pilot reviews were undertaken. Each review team included input from a parent representative and experienced practitioners and, significantly, an autistic adult (at the time such involvement was a highly unusual occurrence). Reports were produced by a team leader/co-ordinator and were presented to a committee called an "Accreditation Monitoring Group". There was a separate group for adults and education. The groups scrutinised the content of the reports to ensure that there was clear evidence that the services were providing high quality autism-specific provision.
The monitoring groups were made up of five members, a chair, a vice chair and three others. Each chair and vice chair dealt with their own specialism, and there were representatives for both education and adult services.
The initial pilot projects for The National Autistic Society's Autism Accreditation proved to be a great success and a decision was taken at this point that Affiliation to the Society would in future be linked to a commitment to ensure that direct service provision worked to the Autism Accreditation standards.
It was also decided that the programme would need to be self-funding to guarantee its long-term viability. Autism Accreditation through a standard based system of peer review was now in place and ready to be rolled out to the wider autism community of service providers.
From this point came the generation of the Accreditation department and the appointment of the Director of Autism Accreditation. The committees were re-organised into a Standards Body, with an overarching responsibility to ensure that the standards that services were working to remained a fair and relevant reflection of current best autism practice, and an Awards Panel, who were tasked with considering whether the written report for each service review met the standards expected of accredited provision.
Very significant contributions have been made to the ongoing development of Autism Accreditation through the Standards Body and Awards Panel. Autism Accreditation continues to grow and develop while holding the key value of improving the lives of autistic people.
One of the key contributors to the development of Autism Accreditation, Fred Parsons, said recently: "I am so proud to have been so actively involved in an initiative that has made such a real difference in improving the quality of life for so many people with autism".
* S64 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968