Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"Adults with autism, particularly 'high functioning' autism, including Asperger Syndrome, are often not diagnosed and supported appropriately. Many GPs and social care staff have little knowledge or awareness of the needs of people with autism and there is a lack of local specialist support services.
"Adults with autism are being left to fend for themselves, with all the consequences this has for their access to further education, benefits or employment, and for their mental health.
"A critical point is the transition from the relatively structured framework of services for children to adulthood. It is like being cast adrift. This lamentable situation is down to a chronic lack of information about what happens to many over-16s with autism, as well as poor planning, sharing of data and coordination of working between key individuals in health, social care, education and employment organizations.
"The Department of Health’s proposed autism strategy, to be published by April 2010, is an excellent opportunity to set out how each of the recommendations by the National Audit Office and this Committee is to be implemented and by when."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 50th report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Department for Work and Pensions, examined the development of a strategy and services for adults with autism, autism awareness and access to services, and improving the effectiveness of services of adults with autism.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder which affects the way people interact with the world around them. The three main areas of difficulty which all people with autism share relate to 'social communication', 'social interaction' and 'social imagination'. Some people with autism can live relatively independently, while others require a lifetime of specialist care. There are around 400,000 adults with autism in England, around half of whom have a learning disability (sometimes known as 'low-functioning' autism), while half do not ('high-functioning' autism, which includes Asperger Syndrome).
People with autism may require concerted, individualised support across health and social care, housing, education, and employment. However, local organisations do not currently have sufficient awareness of the number and needs of people with autism in their area, limiting their ability to plan effectively to provide services to this group. The transition of people with autism from children’s to adult services is often poorly managed and requires more effective leadership and relationships between services.
The traditional configuration of health and social care services has meant that adults with high-functioning autism may fail to access appropriate support, potentially only doing so if they develop more serious problems later. These problems can be exacerbated by poor knowledge of autism amongst health and social care staff assessing the needs of people with autism and their carers.
Despite the fact that many people with autism have skills which could be valuable to employers, only around 15 per cent of people with autism are in full-time employment. There is a lack of awareness and knowledge of autism among potential employers and Jobcentre Plus staff, which can result in poor decision-making and job outcomes for adults with autism.
The effectiveness of services for adults with autism could be improved by raising levels of knowledge and awareness amongst decision-makers and service providers. More specifically, there is scope to provide targeted services for adults with high-functioning autism, which could improve quality of life for people with autism and their carers, as well as potentially reducing costs to the public purse.