Alex Easton DUP
"Of all the legislation that the Assembly has passed, this Bill means most to me.
It is the one that I will probably remember best from the past four years, and I hope that I have helped to play a small part in moving it forward."
Mr Easton: I support the Bill and welcome its Final Stage. I reiterate what my party colleague said about my party’s full support for this Bill as well as expressing my personal support for it. This Bill has been a long time coming, and I thank all those who lobbied on its behalf, especially the all-party autism group in the Assembly. I also thank Dominic Bradley for introducing this private Member’s Bill. That is no mean feat. Well done to you, and I do not say that lightly, especially to the SDLP.
That wee issue aside, I thank Autism Northern Ireland, in particular David Heatley, who is a member of a model railway club in north Down, so he is not too far away from me. He is also a big fan of Facebook; he seems to be on it more than I am, and that is saying something. I also thank Arlene Cassidy for her support and advice and Eileen Bell, who is a constituent of mine and makes that fact well known.
Of all the legislation that the Assembly has passed, this Bill means most to me. It is the one that I will probably remember best from the past four years, and I hope that I have helped to play a small part in moving it forward. If anyone still has doubts about the Autism Bill, it may be worth refreshing a few Members’ memories about some of the issues. Between 5,000 and 10,000 schoolchildren across Northern Ireland have autism. Some 30,000 adults and children have autism, and, every year in Northern Ireland, 300 children are born who will be diagnosed with ASD. The number of children with ASD has increased by 500% in the past seven years, and that is staggering.
Autism is not a rare disability; it is the fastest growing developmental disability. The number of individuals with autism now exceeds the combined number of those with Down’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. The prevalence rate that I mentioned reflects the previously accepted rate of 1:100, but the rate is now 1:50. If you have ASD and an IQ of 70, as an adult you are not entitled to any services.
Autism affects four times more males than females. Approximately 25% of people with ASD have a learning disability, and approximately 75% of people with ASD fall outside the DHSSPS programme of care model. Individuals with autism find transitions particularly distressing. Some 50% of parents with autistic children are on long-term medication; 65% report illnesses linked to caring; 80% of families report feeling overwhelmed and helpless; and 57% report acute anxiety and panic attacks. Furthermore, 90% of parents experience sleep difficulties, exhaustion and fatigue as a result of trying to deal with the issue; 70% of parents report feeling isolated in their home; and 85% report a lack of understanding from the community. Mothers of children with ASD show higher levels of stress than mothers of children with other disabilities.
Some 75% of adults with autism rely on their family for financial support, and 13% of adults with autism live independently. Ninety per cent of the public do not know how common autism is. Although 87% of the public have heard of autism, only 40% have heard of Asperger’s syndrome. Sixty-two per cent of the public interviewed believe that people with autism have special abilities, such as in maths and art. If those are not reasons for an Autism Bill, I do not know what is.
Autism is not a physical or mental condition, as reflected by the amendment that the Bill makes to the Disability Discrimination Act, which, at present, does not cover those suffering from autism. The Bill will amend the definition of disability in the DDA to include social communication, which includes the inability to take part in normal social interaction or form social relationships.
The second aspect of the Bill requires the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to publish an autism strategy within two years of the passing of the Bill. It also requires all Departments to have strategies in place. That will force Departments to work together, which is something that is sadly lacking at the moment. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why I supported the Bill. To date, parents and sufferers have been sold a weak and incoherent strategy that has not put those in the sector in control of their future. They have been dictated to, not assisted. In my view, the Autism Bill, as I repeatedly told Mr Bradley, does not go far enough. However, it is a useful tool that will, hopefully, develop over time. I, therefore, welcome that aspect of the Bill, commend it to the House and hope that it can be progressed further in future.
Mr Easton: Does the Member agree that the Health Department tried every trick in the book to scupper the Bill?