Photo of Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, listening to a presentation

This World Autism Awareness Week, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock MP writes about his plans for a new public awareness campaign that will be launched later this year.

Our charity is very pleased to see Matt Hancock make this commitment, as we’ve been campaigning for improvements in understanding and awareness for a long time. We know more needs to be done and will work with the Government to ensure this campaign makes a difference to autistic people’s lives.

I profoundly believe that every person has the potential within them to contribute to society, and that it is all our responsibility to help others to do that. So, we must improve public understanding of autism so autistic people get the support they need. Too often, a lack of awareness and understanding can sadly impact on autistic people and their families’ daily lives and lead to social isolation. We need to recognise the challenges that autistic people may face, so we can celebrate their unique talents and skills.

World Autism Awareness Week rightly shines a spotlight on this issue and research shows there is a need to do much better. It’s shocking that only 16% of autistic people and their families think the public understand the condition in a meaningful way (the National Autistic Society, 2016).

I want a new public awareness campaign, so that we can improve perceptions of the disability and ensure people are understanding and appreciative of the situations autistic people may find challenging. As Secretary of State for Health and Social Care I will make that happen later this year.

We are currently reviewing our national autism strategy, and we have listened to the views of stakeholders and have decided to extend the next strategy to cover children as well as adults for the first time. So if you’re autistic or support someone who is, don’t forget to feed in your wider views to the review of the strategy.

This week I visited the Sycamore Trust’s autism centre in Dagenham and heard a brilliant presentation from Autism Ambassadors Francesca and Alex who replicated the experience of sensory overload by surrounding me with people shouting about their week - a vivid illustration of what can be a daily experience for autistic people.

The whole of society has a role to play in enabling autistic people to live healthy, independent lives and participate fully in their local communities.

Many local businesses and services are already doing great work to promote autism inclusive communities.

For example, Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre has a weekly “quiet hour” on Sundays for people on the autism spectrum and other conditions while the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour saw 11,000 shops take part in 2018. I’ve even heard of the innovative use of wearable technology to help measure stress and anxiety levels to help autistic people communicate their discomfort.

Early intervention and preventative services in the community is so important to stop people reaching crisis and ending up in hospital, which is not an acceptable long-term solution. Community services like the Sycamore Trust centre are vital in helping to empower and support people. I have been deeply affected by the stories of autistic people who have spent long periods in mental health hospitals and I am committed to improving support and reducing the number of inpatients on our wards.

I’m pleased that autism and learning disabilities are one of the four clinical priority areas in our historic NHS Long Term Plan and through this the NHS is working to improve community support and invest in specialist support and community crisis care, backed by an extra £33.9 billion extra every year for our NHS in cash terms by 2024.

Let’s not forget that our health and social care workforce performs an essential role in enabling all of the above. Our consultation on mandatory learning disability and autism training is a step closer to ensuring every single member of staff is equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to provide informed care and make the small adjustments that make a world of difference to individuals and families.

I’m passionate about building a more autism aware and inclusive society, one where autistic people and their families can go about their daily lives in their communities without fear of judgement. I am looking forward to making progress on this and hope that next year we can celebrate some real improvements in autism awareness in our country.