Oliver and Paula

Far too many autistic people don’t get the right healthcare and support – simply because too few NHS staff have received good autism training.

Yesterday, in a debate in Parliament, the Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage MP, committed to including autism in plans for mandatory training for healthcare staff. This is a very welcome move that could mean that all NHS staff have the training they need to support autistic people, finally living up to duties in the Autism Act.

The debate was organised in response to a petition started by Paula McGowan, following the tragic death of her son Oliver in November 2016. Paula believes his death could have been prevented if doctors and nurses had understood the adjustments he needed for his autism and learning disabilities.

We’re backing Paula’s campaign because it highlights the unacceptable health inequalities autistic people face. Despite requirements in the Autism Act statutory guidance that all health and care staff have appropriate autism training, this training does not happen enough in practice – with serious consequences. According to Public Health England, just 17% of areas report having an autism training plan for all health and care staff, and 10% have no plan at all. We believe that the training programme that Paula and the 50,000 people who signed her petition have been calling for could end this unacceptable situation.

What did the Minister say?

Caroline Dinenage MP

The Minister announced the consultation into a mandatory learning disability training programme for health staff, which was announced last month, would also include autism, saying:

It would be a missed opportunity if we did not consider in our consultation the training requirements of staff to better support autistic people as well those with learning disabilities.

The Minister said that the consultation would start in the New Year. The Government’s final plans for the training will be published by the summer, followed by regulations which could be introduced by the end of 2019.

What else happened in the debate?

Several MPs from different parties spoke in this debate, with strong backing for Paula’s call to ensure all health and care staff understand autism and learning disability. Daniel Zeichner MP (Labour), who introduced the debate, spoke about some of the challenges many autistic people have in accessing care. He said: “Everyone working in the NHS will see autistic and learning-disabled people, even if unaware of it. All frontline staff, therefore, from GP receptionists to consultants in accident and emergency, should receive some evidence-led training about autism.”

Hannah Bardell MP (SNP) spoke about the need to learn from best practice across the UK: “We all know that NHS staff, in whatever part of the UK, do their very best, but there have been failings and the lessons must be learned. Oliver's death cannot be in vain.”

Other MPs spoke passionately about Oliver’s case and others – including their personal stories.

We welcome the commitment Caroline Dinenage made to ensure all healthcare staff get the training they need, and that all autistic people get the adjustments they need. We will be working hard in the upcoming months to ensure the Government sees these plans through.

Our thoughts

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society said: “This is an important commitment from the Minister, which has the potential to improve the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of autistic people.

“This is a direct result of Paula McGowan’s tireless campaigning, in memory of her son Oliver, including her petition which gained over 50,000 signatures. We are proud to support Paula’s campaign and will continue to work with her to make sure the Government honours its commitment.

“Many autistic people continue to have much worse physical and mental health than the general public – and may even be at greater risk of dying early. Making sure that all healthcare staff understand autism, and the often simple changes that can help autistic people, is an important step to tackling this unacceptable health inequality – and creating a society that works for autistic people.”

Further information