22 MAR 2019

Speech in debate on autism

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

I, too, wish to start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), and I am glad that all our thoughts are with her.

In my constituency, I am very fortunate in having numerous institutions, be they charitable or, as it were, full-time, and individuals who do a lot to take things forward, examine them and do the research on autism. I wish to make two mentions to start with. First, it was through this issue that I was introduced to Dame Stephanie Shirley, whose work in this area is phenomenal. She has spent a huge amount of her own money taking forward research in this area, and she is a beacon when it comes to providing a focus on dealing with autism and showing us what to do. Secondly, I would like to mention a charity called Music for Autism, which was set up with the Orchestra of St John's. It uses music to influence the lives of those with autism. Those who have seen it in ​ operation will know that it is a fantastic experience to see how members of the orchestra lap up the opportunity to work with those with autism and help enrich their lives. That is a great achievement.

I wish to concentrate on three areas. First, I want to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in commenting on the treatment of those with autism in the justice system. That needs to be concentrated on in three areas in particular: the police; the courts; and among prison staff, if it eventually comes to that. Only two things need to be done to take this issue forward in a big way. First, we need to identify those with autism at a very early stage, because as the hon. Gentleman said, that helps to make sure that we do not end up in a whole lot of disputes at a later stage. I am aware that the courts have put a lot of effort into making sure that they are autism-friendly for people appearing before them. I am also aware of a number of prisons that support people with autism; I think there is a pilot scheme, and I hope it will be rolled out across the prison system and that we can learn the lessons from it.

The second issue I wish to mention is education. Several Members have already mentioned education, but I wish to cover a particular aspect: the involvement of people with autism in designing training for teachers. Several Members have hinted at that point, but I do not think anyone has tackled it as boldly as I am going to. The involvement of people with autism in the training of teachers is absolutely essential. They can provide help with training and influence how it is devised in many ways, all of which will lead to more choice and to our paying special attention to the needs of those with autism.

Finally, I wish to comment on autism and jobs. Last year, I was appointed a special envoy for an autistic charity called SPACE—I am never good with acronyms, but I think it stands for Supporting People with Autism into Continued Employment. I became the envoy for that charity to promote the idea of Members taking on staff with autism in their offices. As a way of demonstrating that, I enthusiastically took on a young man from Hornchurch who has autism. When it came to saying goodbye to him at the end of his period with me, I really regretted that he was going. He had been an outstanding worker and made an outstanding contribution to my office. It had been a great experience, not only for him but especially for me and my staff. If we can encourage more of that, we will have a much better way forward for those with autism.

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