Autism Training in Schools – 3 February 2020

Hansard (Official Report) for Autism Training in Schools

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Mrs Pam Cameron to move the motion.

Mrs Cameron: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the specific needs of pupils with autism in our schools; values and supports the role of all educators in ensuring pupils with autism have the best educational outcomes; and calls on the Minister of Education to explore the introduction of mandatory autism training for all teachers and classroom assistants.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The proposers of the amendments will have 10 minutes to move their amendments and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mrs Cameron: Let me say at the outset how pleased I am that this is the first private Members’ motion brought to the Floor since our return to the Chamber, and what better message to send out to our constituents than one that shows that we prioritise those in need, we champion better outcomes for all, and we support our educators in bringing through future generations.

Even while the Assembly was down, the work of the all-party group (APG), of which I am proud to be chair, continued. As many of you already know, the all-party group on autism was set up in 2008 to look specifically at issues relating to the autism community in Northern Ireland. The aim of the all-party group is ultimately to ensure that adequate support and services are available to the 30,000 families affected by autism and that the main issues are highlighted. The APG has witnessed the introduction of the Autism Act in 2011 and the resulting autism strategy. Autism NI’s secretariat has led the lobbying for that, for which we thank them. Since the strategy was introduced, however, the APG on autism has also seen the many failures of the strategy. Those are outlined in the ‘Broken promises’ report of 2016, which I encourage you all to read.

The Autism Act is still the most comprehensive piece of single disability legislation in Europe, but it has failed to accomplish what we, as an APG, hoped that it would. We feel particularly let down by the resulting autism strategy and the accompanying action plans. Only one of the three action plans has been completed, although all three have a deadline of 2020. That stagnation in delivery is the legacy of three years without this place. Therefore, the onus is on us to correct it with swift and decisive action to make up for lost time.

The reality is stark. Childhood diagnosis of autism has nearly doubled in the past six years. Therefore, the lack of support and services has become more and more evident. For example, as outlined in the autism strategy, diagnosis is supposed to be made within eight weeks. However, we know that that is not happening in most areas, with many families waiting up to 18 months. We all know that early intervention is key to managing autism, but intervention is being delayed owing to lengthy diagnosis processes. Early intervention services are also inadequate. They vary from trust to trust and, at present, do not support the complex needs of our families and children.

Education, however, is by far the issue raised most by parents and teaching’ unions, and, as we know, in the many related cases in our constituencies. The school environment is ultimately where autistic children spend the vast majority of their day. The all-party group has met the Ulster Teachers’ Union on various occasions over the past two years. It has told us unreservedly that it cannot access adequate autism training provision through the Department of Education. In fact, the current president, Susan Thompson, reported recently:

“There are not enough courses. The timings of courses are inaccessible, and the fact that they are not mandatory is worrying.”

Teachers and classroom assistants feel overwhelmed and are under-resourced to be able to work with children with autism, as they have not had the opportunity to gain the skills needed to do so. Therefore, the Ulster Teachers’ Union, the National Association of Teachers and the National Education Union have said, unequivocally, that they are in full support of the immediate introduction of mandatory autism training in Northern Ireland.

Autism NI has the only autism-specific helpline in Northern Ireland and receives over 5,000 calls each year from autistic individuals, parents and professionals. Education is the subject of the vast majority of the calls. In 2019, the charity also conducted a survey relating specifically to education. From the survey, it was discovered that over one third of children with autism were on a reduced timetable. That can mean reduced for just an hour a day, or it can mean that they are in class for only an hour a day, which is totally unacceptable. It is even more unacceptable when one takes into account that 78% of autistic children are in mainstream classrooms. Currently, one in 30 school-age children is diagnosed with autism. That could be one child in every classroom. It should be seen as common sense that the person that children with autism are spending a large quantity of their day with understands them and is able to educate and support them in a way that fulfils their needs. For parents already anxious about the challenges that their child faces each and every day, the reassurance of having teachers fully trained as a result of mandatory training would provide additional comfort that their child will be supported in the best way possible.

I urge the Minister to act. The public support is widespread. In September 2019, an online petition created by the charity Autism NI that called for mandatory autism training was signed by more than 10,000 people in just a few days. An accompanying rally was held at Stormont. It was attended by hundreds and received good media coverage. We have a draft Programme for Government that states clearly that every child deserves the “best start in life”. The best start in life for any child includes the best educational outcomes, but, for children with autism, we know that that is not the case. The autism strategy also states that all teaching staff should understand autism. Again, we know that this target has not been met. These are our children’s lives that we are playing with, and their future.

Every autistic child becomes an autistic adult. We need to spend now to save later or risk many of our autistic adults ending up in mental health services, which we know are already under pressure. The UK’s largest autism research charity, Autistica, recently reported that autistic adults are nine times more likely to die through suicide than the rest of the general population. I am sure you will agree that this statistic is horrific and unacceptable. Autism training makes good economic sense. With the right support and opportunities, we know that autistic young children can achieve and go on to live a fulfilling and productive life. Not only is it our moral duty to reverse the fate of a generation of children and young people with autism, but it makes good social and economic sense.

The UK statistic for autistic adults in employment is 16% for full-time work. This figure has remained the same for the past decade, showing that autistic people are not benefiting, and reaffirming that we must turn the curve earlier at every step of their journey towards adulthood and work. The NI Executive have a responsibility to make sure that autistic children can get the support that they need at the earliest opportunity — and we know that is from education — from people who understand autism. Autistic children deserve the same opportunities in life as their peers. We should all want to create a more inclusive environment for all our children, and autistic children and adults need to be part of that. Other parts of the UK have already implemented mandatory autism training for teachers, and Northern Ireland needs to follow suit or risk being left behind.

We are not asking for autism to be elevated above other disabilities or needs. We are simply asking for our children to have an equal playing field that can be afforded to the most basic right of a good education. A friend recently shared a post on Facebook that said the following, and I am quoting again:

“Allowing a student with a hidden disability to struggle academically or socially when all that is needed for success are appropriate accommodations and explicit instruction is no different than failing to provide a ramp for a person in a wheelchair.”

And how true is that? Would any child with any other disability be asked to attend a school that is not equipped, resourced or trained to support their needs? No, they would not.

It is important that this debate focuses on what the motion asks for: mandatory autism training. What is does not include is the nature of that training, and that is for the Department to consult on. What is important today, however, is that we get the commitment to introduce mandatory training, the form of which is for another day and would serve only to confuse the debate at this stage. I am asking the Minister of Education to introduce mandatory autism training for all teaching staff, to include those in training and those already in post, and classroom assistants in Northern Ireland. I also respectfully ask that any exploration period required be kept to an absolute minimum, because our children have waited long enough.

Miss Woods: I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after “Education” and insert:

“to introduce mandatory autism training for all trainee teachers, teachers and classroom assistants.”

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Miss Woods: Autism, as we know, is a lifelong disability that affects the social and communication centre of the brain. It affects the way an individual relates to people, situations and their immediate environment. Many individuals with autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information like sight, smells, touch, tastes and sounds. This varies from person to person.

Many Members will know someone with autism. The number of children identified with autism in Northern Ireland has increased year on year since 2012. According to Department of Health figures published in 2019, one in 30 school-age children has autism and 78% of autistic children are in mainstream schools. That is, potentially, one in every classroom. Given this, and the inherent tendency in Northern Ireland of reactionary training for teachers, we should be pursuing a more proactive approach. Compulsory or mandatory training on autism would be a solid foundation to build upon.

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In 2012, the National Autistic Society for Northern Ireland carried out a survey of children with autism and their parents. Of the young people they spoke to, almost a third said that one of the worst things about school was that their teachers did not understand them. School is daunting enough for any child, as we all know, let alone one who feels that they are not understood. That puts undue pressure and stress on the student themselves, the teacher-student relationship, the wider interaction in the classroom with others and on the relationship between the teacher and the family. More widely, it adds to mental health pressures.

After speaking to a good friend of mine in Bangor called Aaron about his experiences in school and with tech, he told me that he would like to see the mental health of children and young people with autism talked about, as they are often forgotten —.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. On the point of mental health, does she agree with me that one of the sad realities of a lack of autism training in schools is that many parents are overwhelmed when dealing with the spill-out at home, and that has had an adverse impact on their mental health?

Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his question. I completely agree. Parents have enough pressure on them, let alone dealing with a situation where, say, the teachers are not involved or do not understand what is going on at home.

Aaron stated that, if teachers were more aware of how to deal with pupils with autism and had mandatory training in their issues, their mental health would be better understood. The research conducted in 2012 also showed that expertise in schools remained patchy and that many teachers did not get the training, knowledge or resources that they needed to help children with autism. Almost one in five parents indicated dissatisfaction with teachers’ understanding of how to support children. More recently, Autism NI stated that one third of parents coming to them for advice on their children’s education said that they were on a reduced timetable at their current school. I agree with the chief executive at Autism NI that that is entirely unacceptable. Autism is categorised as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and under the Autism Act (NI) 2011, where reasonable adjustments must be made in all public organisations, but we know that that is not happening in many of our schools. All our children should be given the best possible start in life, and a child with autism should not be disadvantaged when it comes to their education.

How can children with autism not be disadvantaged in their education if we continue with the current opt-in training culture? Adequate mandatory training for teachers would mean that the special education needs of all children and young people, including those with autism, were met and would be an important first step to help transform the lives and prospects of future generations of children with autism. The reason why mandatory training is so important and why we have tabled the amendment is to make sure that teachers and classroom assistants work towards a whole-school approach in supporting children. It is of note that, in September 2019, the Government announced that all health and social care staff in England would receive training in autism and learning disability, working towards a whole-healthcare approach. I would like to congratulate those who campaigned on the issue — specifically Mencap and their Treat Me Well campaign — and the all-party groups that have been formed. I hope that this can be fully realised in Northern Ireland too. Could this not be rolled out to our educators to better people’s experiences in a school setting as well?

Research conducted by Ulster University in the greater Belfast area in 2003 found that a majority of staff felt they had inadequate training to equip them to meet children’s particular needs and reported a lack of knowledge and skills to help those children. Teachers and classroom assistants are fully supportive of the motion. All of the teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland support the introduction of mandatory autism training. I note that, in the autism strategy 2013-2020 and action plan 2013-16, support funding for autism-related training for those in the preschool sector is listed, as well as the publication of guides for teachers in classrooms and some school and parent resources. However, training should not be limited to those in the preschool sector; it should be extended to all those training to be teachers or classroom assistants and all those currently qualified. The initial teacher training programme in the rest of the UK covers a wider variety of the skills that teachers need to teach the curriculum, and, in 2016, the UK Government added a teacher training framework which ensures that SEN is covered, including how to support children with autism.

We have had time to find ways in which we can improve provision of support for those in our schools who have autism, so the time for exploring options is over. What we need now is concrete action for teachers and students. That is not to say that we do not have any resources in Northern Ireland: we do. The Department invests substantial resources in the training provision at Middletown autism centre, but, while that is to be commended, it is not sufficient and does not meet the growing demand, nor is it compulsory. Providing support to schools, including the continuing professional development of staff, has already been identified in previous strategies and action plans. The Assembly should push on with this by compelling the Minister of Education to include autism training as part of core teacher training. Assembly questions to the Minister have shown that it is not possible to know how many teachers have received the current training, but, with mandatory training, we know that we can and will ensure that everyone has received the same level of training.

In September last year, a petition was signed by over 10,000 people online asking the Department of Education to introduce mandatory training. A rally attended by people with autism, parents and teachers was held here on 11 September 2019, making their voices heard. We have much to do here to strengthen the Autism Act and ensure its proper implementation. We should listen to those 10,000 people today, and that is why we call on the Minister to introduce mandatory autism training as an important step in delivering for our young people and supporting our teaching staff.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Karen Mullan to move amendment No 2.

Ms Mullan: I speak in support the motion and in favour —.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member must move the amendment first and then resume her seat.

Ms Mullan: I beg to move amendment No 2:

At end insert:

“, and for teacher training colleges to introduce a compulsory module that includes this training during the postgraduate certificate in education.”

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes. The Assembly should note that amendment No 1 and amendment No 2 are mutually exclusive, so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question shall not be put on amendment No 2.

Ms Mullan: I speak in favour of the motion and amendment No 1. I believe that our amendment strengthens the motion but also that we should show a united front today.

As my party’s education spokesperson and a member of the all-party group on autism, I have heard from many in the education sector, parents, young people and the wider community who are calling for greater autism awareness and training. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right to inclusive education for all persons with disabilities. If we are to go about realising that, making autism-specific training mandatory for our teachers is a step in the right direction.

In the North, one in 30 children has a diagnosis of autism. The vast majority of those children are educated in a mainstream setting, which shows the need for autism training for teachers and classroom assistants. In my city of Derry, Derry City and Strabane District Council and our two main shopping centres have led the way in making our public venues inclusive for all. Part of that has been training all front-line staff in autism awareness. If we can do that in our public and private sectors, why are we not providing that training to our teaching staff, who have our children in their care anywhere up to 30 hours a week?

Our teaching staff want to be supported to provide the best care and education to our young people and to be more equipped to do so. The role of the teacher is evolving; they are, increasingly, working with children with complex needs, and introducing this training at the start of their journey will, no doubt, serve them well throughout their career. For that reason, our amendment would strengthen the motion to include a compulsory module during teacher training. Introducing that in teacher training colleges is a pragmatic step that could be taken and would have an impact for a relatively low cost.

In October last year, I met the Department and asked them to look at options, including costs. One such option to be explored is assigning one of the allocated teacher training days, which would reduce the cost of teacher cover. Widening out the training to include compulsory disability training should also be included.

Today’s motion and debate is the start of what is required, but we now need action. Parents and young people and our teaching staff need action from all of us. The Autism Act was brought in in 2011, and yet we continue to see an increased number of children and young people in particular waiting years for diagnosis and support services. I call on the Minister to acknowledge that there is a crisis in special education needs provision and that many teachers actively seek this training. By supporting the motion and amendment No 1, we would send a positive message to the sector as well as to families.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now move on to the list. Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that contributions are limited to five minutes, although, if you take an intervention, you will get an additional minute.

Mr McGrath: I am pleased to speak in support of the motion and the amendments. We do not really see a major difference between the amendments, so we are happy to support them as we go along.

As Members will know, the SDLP has campaigned for many years — from 2002, with the work of John Fee MLA — for increased autism support. That culminated in the Autism Act (NI), which Dominic Bradley brought forward in 2010 and which began to operate in 2011. Sadly, the potential of that Act to transform people’s lives has been compromised not only by a lack of financial support but by a lack of ministerial decision-making over the past three years. With that in mind, I warmly welcome the fact that, today, we are in the Chamber discussing the issue.

The need for this type of training is long overdue. The huge increase in ASD-related diagnoses in recent years should serve as a wake-up call about the urgent need for such provision. We in the House and, indeed, the Minister must listen to the will of people here. Diagnoses have trebled in a decade. Schools and autism services struggle to meet an ever-increasing demand. From speaking to teachers and parents in my constituency of South Down, I know that there is a clear want and need for mandatory autism training in our schools.

Ms S Bradley: I appreciate the Member giving way. I stand as your South Down colleague who has heard that message resonating. Does the Member agree that, although that critical training is the first and right step, it must be properly resourced — I take the point about not getting into the detail today — and real cognisance needs to be taken of the conflicting time pressures on the teacher in the classroom? I say that as somebody who has come through teacher training. The pressures in the classroom can put a very different slant on it. I urge, going forward, that we recognise that.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Mr McGrath: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Yes, certainly, and we see that resources are required when we look at the scale and the numbers of young people affected. Some of the statistics that I will mention later will certainly highlight how some form of resource will need to go alongside it.

One eighth of the annual education budget, which is, I think, about £270 million, is being spent on supporting children with special education needs, including autism, but we can do more. The Department of Health tells us that one in 30 school-age children lives with ASD, and 78% of those children are in mainstream schools. That is a huge number of young people across the North in all types of schools who have to deal with the issue.

According to the Children’s Law Centre, the number of parents experiencing difficulties in receiving support for their children has increased. There are teachers and classroom assistants who, through no fault of their own, do not understand the complexities of autism. That has led to children who need targeted support being at times given detention, excluded from class or, ultimately, expelled from school. We cannot allow that to continue. The Children’s Law Centre also said that, five years ago, it dealt with 400 cases relating to special education in schools compared with 1,600 cases now, so there is a very obvious need that we need to address.

The vast majority of staff, teachers, classroom assistants and support staff who work in our schools are among the most caring and considerate individuals in the North. Like many other roles such as nursing, they do that with a sense of passion beyond their sense of duty. Teachers and classroom assistants whom my colleagues and I have listened to fully support the motion today. All the teacher unions, as was mentioned, also support it, but we have to make sure that this is not simply a box-ticking exercise.

There is concern among some that that is what this could become if it is just a quick half-day exercise. We need to make sure that any training is done properly.

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At the same time, however, we need to do something. I always remember the story about what can happen when the bell rings at the end of class. There might be so much noise in the classroom that, if a homework were to be issued at that stage, children with autism might not be able to process the instruction that they were given, and that could lead to them going home and potentially having a meltdown. That can cause a lot of stress in the home. If teachers are equipped with very small tips such as that, it could help massively in the classroom, especially for the 78% in mainstream education. A half-day exercise might be very quick, but it could equip our teachers and classroom assistants with some really helpful insights into how to help children.

It has been said that living with autism is simply a different way of experiencing the world. A person living with autism may see, hear, feel, taste and touch the full vibrancy of the world around them, and that is witnessed most keenly in the classroom. Although it is a different way of experiencing the world, it can also be overwhelming. We must be sensitive to the needs of those living with autism and ensure that we have done all that we can to facilitate a sensitive, understanding and informed learning environment. I urge each of you to support the motion.

Mr Butler: I support the motion and the amendment. As a member of the APG on autism perhaps this past four years, I have become increasingly aware of the disadvantage faced by our young people with autism. We know that, in Northern Ireland, we face higher levels of autism than the national average. In fact, the Department of Health figures from 2019 state that we now have one in 30 school-age children with autism. When we look at the average classroom size, we see that that means that just about every classroom in Northern Ireland will have at least one child who may require adjustment or support.

The timeline for action stretches back more than 10 years. In 2009, Minister McGimpsey published the ASD strategic action plan and later commissioned the Regional Autistic Spectrum Disorder Network (RASDN) to implement the strategy. That should have provided the momentum required to get us further than where we are today. Further ministerial announcements followed, and progress has been made, but much momentum has been lost and a proper, collegiate, cross-departmental strategy has perhaps been lacking.

My constituency office, as I am sure that of other Members, handles a multiplicity of issues, and children with autism and other spectrum issues figure high on the list. When, as an elected representative, I seek to help, I share the frustrations of parents and carers at the speed of response and, at times, the utter exasperation of teachers who are clearly seeking to do the best that they can do for their pupils.

I am delighted that the Ulster Teachers’ Union is supportive of the introduction of mandatory training. From conversation with teacher friends, I have been convinced that that is the only way forward. The pressures faced by teachers are many, but surely an element of awareness-raising training for the profession in a mandated form, accessed at initial training and revisited through refresher events, can only help alleviate the growing pressures.

The majority of our children with autism are taught in mainstream education. To be accurate, it is 78%. Therefore, to try to dilute who is trained and where they are trained would be to ignore the struggle of our children in the education system across all our communities.

Every child deserves the “best start in life”, as stated in our Programme for Government. That being the collective aim of the Executive means that we need to take a collegiate approach in order to ensure that our children are not disadvantaged in any way. Therefore, if we are serious about achieving that aim, we must ensure that all teaching and assistant staff are equipped and informed to help them fulfil their role. To do less would be to lower the bar to such an extent that we may fail before we even begin.

As mentioned by Members, it was incredible to be part of the elected group that was in attendance when a petition of over 10,000 signatures was delivered to Stormont in September 2019. The rally was attended by parents, teachers, activists and, most importantly, autistic individuals. It was a testament to the public body of support for this motion and the wish that it becomes a reality.

I will finish on this very important point, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. The future of the individual children with autism hinges on the support they get in their early and formative years. This is a partnership between parents, society, teachers and other agencies. However, when we reflect on the outcomes in their future life, and the barriers to work and further education they face, we must effect change, and we must do it now. I support the motion and the amendment.

Ms Bradshaw: I support the motion and amendment No 1.

I have been the Alliance Party health spokesperson since 2016, and since then barely a day has passed that the subject of autism, and the needs of the children living with it, has not been raised with me, so this is good news. Certainly, there is a higher level of public consciousness of this condition and the steps that need to be taken forward.

Last November, in my own constituency, I attended the opening of the National Autistic Society centre in Carryduff. I know there are MLAs in the Chamber today who were also there. It is the first centre of its kind in Northern Ireland, designed specifically with the needs of people living with autism in mind. The advantage of having this centre, which is a step forward, is not only that it provides space for people with the condition and their carers, but it also plays a role in enhancing the awareness raising process to ensure that people with autism are better catered for in daily life, not least when they are accessing public services.

In fact, we are approaching a decade since the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made by public organisations. Unfortunately, this has not happened across the school estate due to the various difficulties in managing the process efficiently. However, it is worth emphasising that the Act, and other legislation, clearly requires equal treatment for children with autism in the education system. As my colleague has just pointed out, the last Programme for Government also gave a specific commitment to giving every child the “best start in life”. The motion correctly reflects the fact that we need to achieve the outcome envisaged in the legislation by making sure that everyone is aware of it and suitably trained. We are keen to strengthen it a little to emphasise that this is something that must be done, rather than just explored. I do support Ms Cameron’s recommendation that this should be consulted on, because it is both our legal and moral duty to do so.

Furthermore, teachers have no issue with this, and, as we have heard today, the teaching unions are very much in favour of mandatory autism training. We are also keen to emphasise that this needs to include trainee teachers, because it needs to be there from the start of their education journey. New teachers entering the profession will have the advantage of growing up in a society which is already more aware of autism than ever before. They will no doubt be the first to say that specific training will be very useful. Of course, the reason that all teachers need to be trained is that they will all come across autism. On average, almost every class will contain one child living with autism, and the vast majority of children with autism are within our mainstream education provision.

The most compelling reason for supporting the motion is not connected to teaching or legal obligations, but it is the simple reality that so many people living with autism do not end up in full-time employment. This must be, at least in part, to do with inadequate support from the start of their education, as well as the ongoing lack of awareness of the condition, despite recent advances. By enabling people with autism to have more choice and control at the outset, including of education pathways and healthier lifestyles, we can set them on the road to a more independent life, with the same opportunities in learning and employment as everyone else.

No one here today is arguing that this first step will solve all the problems around autism. We need to investigate better mental health provision, better workplace support and ongoing better public awareness of not just autism but the effects it has on pupils’ lives. However, this is one step that will be hugely significant, not just because it has an impact on early life, but because it will send a very clear message from this Assembly that we want people living with autism to have exactly the same chances as everyone else. I commend this motion and amendment No 1.

Ms P Bradley: I welcome the opportunity today to speak on this very important issue. I thank my colleague Pam Cameron for bringing the motion to the House. I also thank the Members who tabled amendments. Those go some way to strengthening the motion, so they are very welcome. I will support the motion whatever happens.

I, too, have been an active member of the all-party group on autism over the past number of years. In the three years when we had no Assembly, the all-party group on autism was extremely active in calling all the Departments to account and writing to them and asking just what they were doing to support not only children but adults living with autism. It became apparent very early on that Departments were falling short of what they were required to do under the Autism Act and strategy.

We, as MLAs, cannot just blame those Departments for falling short; we have to take some of that blame, especially over the past three years when we have not been here to call those Departments to account. I am so glad that we are back here, doing the job that we need to do. This is our first motion, and we make a commitment here today not to take our foot off the pedal but to call all Departments to account.

Going back to the motion and mandatory training for teachers, Mrs Cameron mentioned in her speech, as did others, that, when the National Union of Teachers gave evidence to the all-party group, it became very evident that we were failing our children and our schools, and they were crying out for help. In some primary schools across Northern Ireland, perhaps only one teacher has had autism training. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Minister to bring about that change in order that we deliver for vulnerable children who need our help.

When we got the information packs and the research packs, it was interesting to look back at the number of Assembly questions that have been asked over the last 10 years on mandatory autism training. There have been many, and the same answer keeps coming back. One of the points in that answer is Middletown. I have been there, along with some of my all-party colleagues. Pam and I had a bit of a road trip that day because I was directing and I got us lost, but we found it eventually, and it is a fantastic place. It does wonderful work, but it is not the answer. The answer is wider than that. The answer is to invest in all our teachers so that they get the help and support that they need.

I also praise the voluntary and community sector and the work that it does in meeting that unmet need. I also praise all those parent-led groups in our communities. We all have them, and we have all visited them, in our constituencies. Parents are supporting one another to try to navigate through the education system and the health system, and, sometimes, that is the only help that they have.

Other colleagues will know that special educational need comes up in our constituency offices time and time again. I have had many meetings over the years about children, specifically around autism, who are not receiving the proper attention that they need. So, this is something that we need to add on to the mandatory autism training. The other Mrs Bradley mentioned in her intervention that, if we have this and mandatory training, once a child is diagnosed, those services need to follow the child. There is no point in having a diagnosis only to find out that the services are not available. I recently visited some schools in my area, and there is a recurring theme, which is special educational needs services. It is all well and good having a diagnosis, but unless we have support for those children and their families, we will not have done what we set out to do.

Mr Butler: Will the Member give way?

Mr Butler: Thank you. I love your passion for the subject. We know that mental health issues exist across the suite of primary education and with our young people, but there is an even greater propensity for mental health issues among young people with autism. Do you agree that perhaps there is a double win here if we can support our young people in their journey with autism and the, at times, hidden mental health issue that also exists that sometimes is not recognised?

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Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention —.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has an additional minute.

Ms P Bradley: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I was going to say to the Member, “Thank you for that extra minute”, but he nearly spoke the whole way through it. [Laughter.]

I absolutely agree with the Member, and it is something that the chair of the all-party group brought up as well: in mental health, early intervention is key, especially for children who have additional needs. Early intervention can save money in the long term. Of course, we are not all about saving money; we are about saving lives too and improving quality of life, so that was a good point.

I have little time left, but I want to say that one of the schools in my area is Cedar Lodge, which is for children with additional needs, especially autism. We need to do more to support those special educational schools; it does not just stop at the door of our mainstream schools.

Mr Boylan: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I have been a member of the APG since 2008. I will stick to the mandatory training, but I am delighted that the Minister is here, because I hope that, after this debate, he will take the lead on all of this. A lot of us know that a strategy and a plan arose from the 2011 Act, identifying the responsibilities of each Department. The previous Member mentioned this: we hope that the Minister will take the lead on this and show the other Departments the way, because, for a number of years, we have been trying to get the right services for people with ASD.

I thank Autism NI and the National Autistic Society, plus all the people who have helped for a number of years with the administration of the work of the APG. A lot of good work has been done. For years, they have helped us to compose questions. Some days, we get the right answers, but, more often than not, we do not make enough progress. Listening to the comments of many of the contributors to this debate, I think that we are going in the right direction. There are two reports that I want to mention on record, because it is important to do so for the people who have helped us a lot to bring us to where we are. Hopefully, as I said, after this, the Minister will take on board the comments of the group and we can move forward with the chair and all the people associated with the group and work with the Departments.

The issue of mandatory training goes back to a report that was launched in the Long Gallery in 2012 entitled, ‘A* for Autism: Make every school a good school’. That report highlighted the difficulties that children with autism experienced in the education system here. Education, as we know, is a fundamental part of every child’s life. It gives children the opportunity to learn about the world they live in and how they can play a part in this world. It should be a time when children feel safe and happy and confident about building relationships and friendships and being able to make the most of their abilities and talents. It should help them to develop independence and prepare them for a bright and happy future.

In the research for the report, parents told us that they wanted an education system that is ambitious and believes their children can achieve; gives their children similar opportunities to other children; understands and supports their children’s needs; allows their children to develop friendships and life skills; allows their children to enjoy good mental health; and prepares their children for life. Those are what any parent would want for a child with or without autism, but, unfortunately, collectively we have left them down.

In 2016, the National Autistic Society NI, in conjunction with Autism NI, published ‘Broken Promises’, a report that highlighted the failures in the delivery of the autism strategy going back to 2011 and the difficulties that children and young people experienced in the education system. A call was made for mandatory autism training for teachers and classroom assistants. Given that every teacher — this is no slight on teachers; I do not want them emailing me about this — will teach multiple autistic children during their career, that puts those children at risk of being taught by teachers who have not chosen to educate themselves in their own time. If mandatory training were introduced, its quality would be fundamental. It is not enough to simply raise awareness of autism; teachers must also understand autism and be schooled in the techniques and strategies needed to teach a child with autism and all its associated complexities. Mandatory training would be a first step towards addressing and meeting the needs of pupils with autism.

We will not divide on the motion. Everybody has spoken very well. I support the motion and amendment. I reiterate that I hope that the Minister will take the lead on this and ask for support across the Departments that have a role and responsibility across the autism spectrum.

Mr Middleton: I thank my colleagues for tabling this important motion. The fact that it has been tabled at such an early opportunity sends a signal as to how important the issue is not only to us but to wider society. I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber today. We hope that he will take on board the valid points that have been made by all contributors so far. I also pay tribute to Autism NI, the National Autistic Society and all the fantastic organisations that, over the past number of years, particularly the past three years, have kept their shoulders to the wheel. The fact that the all-party group on autism has continued to meet has been mentioned. That is valuable and important work, and, hopefully, that will pay dividends in what we will see over the coming weeks. Like my colleague, I recognise the Circle of Support organisation in my constituency and the many parent-led organisations that do fantastic voluntary work. The support that they provide is very important.

There is no doubt that there is widespread support for the motion. We know that, just last September, a rally was held here at Stormont. We know that there was an online petition with over 10,000 signatories. It is a hugely emotive issue. We, as elected Members, and the Minister need to ensure that it is delivered on, and I hope that that will happen over the next number of weeks and months. As colleagues mentioned, teachers and classroom assistants have indicated their support for the motion. All the teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland support the introduction of mandatory autism training.

Many of us in the Chamber, including me, have family members with autism. We know about not only the challenges but the opportunities that that brings, whether that be at the initial assessment stage, through education or as they move into the workplace. As my colleagues said, we know of the delays around assessment, but, when that assessment comes, it is vital that the services follow, right through education and into the workplace.

According to recent Department of Health figures, one in 30 school-age children has autism in Northern Ireland. Of those, 78% are in mainstream schools, not special schools. Given those figures, it is vital that the teaching force in Northern Ireland receive current, relevant and up-to-date training to assist them in delivering a curriculum that allows every child to reach their full potential. It is vital that no child is left behind. Only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment in the UK, even though 78% do not have a learning disability. Many of those say that that is an adverse effect of a lack of support during the school years and of not receiving a full education, with mental health deteriorating as a result. That gap needs to be filled. Over the past couple of years, I have met individuals with autism who now work in the public sector, some in very exciting roles. We need to ensure that we can encourage people with autism to get into workplaces and ensure that people are mindful and understanding of their requirements and needs. In closing, I urge Members to get behind the motion and, indeed, the amendments, whichever way they fall.

Mr Durkan: The introduction of mandatory autism training for all teaching staff was the subject of a petition that many Members have mentioned already today. It was organised by Autism NI last year. We saw the obvious, in my opinion, need for such training and supported the petition. I am sure that other Members did, and I was one of over 10,000 people who signed it. I take the opportunity, as Gary did, to commend Autism NI for the work that it has done, continuously and consistently campaigning to improve services and support for those living with autism.

I must say, however, that I was dumbfounded at the response from the Department of Education to the petition. It was deemed that the proposal to increase provision in schools in line with a significant rise in autism diagnoses was premature. On the contrary, the need for that type of training is long overdue. The exponential rise in autism- and ASD-related diagnoses in recent years is testament to the urgent need for provision. From speaking with teachers and parents, as others have done, in and beyond constituency, I know that there is a clear demand and desire for mandatory autism training. The Minister must listen, where his Department would not, to the public and to the evidence. As Colin McGrath told us, diagnoses have trebled in the past decade, and autism services struggle to meet the ever-increasing demand. Indeed, I contend that it was the Department’s response that was premature. It was made without giving due consideration to the inarguable statistics relating to the severe lack of adequate autism services in education.

When it comes to autism, it seems that we need to foster a change of attitudes not among the general public but among the powers that be. The issue needs to be progressed, and I welcome the motion as a means of doing so. When it comes to education, no child should be left behind. We must create an education system that provides fair and equal access for all. Members who spoke previously have lamented the failure so far to deliver on the promises and potential of our Autism Act, but we cannot blame that just on the fact that we have not been here in three years. Long before that, pressure on autism services and a lack of autism support was becoming unbearable, and the cracks that were showing are now growing.

In my constituency, there was uproar and outrage last year when I uncovered the fact that the Western Health and Social Care Trust was unable to use its allocation of funding for the autism pathway project and that money was sent back, despite the fact that we had in that trust area over 800 people waiting on a list for assessment. That befuddled many, particularly those working hard in the community to support individuals and families with autism, and we are lucky to have several of those organisations in Derry. Gary Middleton mentioned Circle of Support, and Parents of Older Children with Autism (POCA) and the Jigsaw Project are another couple that do sterling work. I was glad last week to have it confirmed to me by the Western Trust that significant steps had been taken and were being taken to address its huge shortcomings in that area.

There is a danger that, because the demand for diagnosis has become so huge, meeting the demand for diagnosis becomes our sole focus or our Holy Grail. Paula Bradley said that many families discover, to their disappointment and confusion, that, once they have won their battle or, in many cases, war for diagnosis, they are left in limbo. There are inconsistencies across trust areas. We need to ascertain what works best where and try to replicate that across the board.

We also have to be mindful that it is not only in schools where support is required and where hugely positive interventions can be made. We need to look at the support that can be given to families at home, especially in those early days after diagnosis, and how we can help families to prepare, adjust and cope better.

1.45 pm

To conclude, we certainly support the motion and amendment No 1. In terms of how the training should look, I would say that it should have input from individuals who are living with autism in both its design and its delivery. It is also worth highlighting that the better our staff in schools can cope with autism, the better it will be for all pupils in our schools.

Mr Robinson: First and foremost, I thank my colleagues for tabling this very important motion and, indeed, the amendments. I am sure that all MLAs in the Chamber recognise the challenges that come with autism. Therefore, it is essential that all staff working with autistic children realise that they are appreciated and valued by the Assembly.

Looking through the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, I have been struck by the interdepartmental working that is required to ensure that people with autism have the best possible services. One Department specifically named in the Act is Education. This is entirely correct. Teachers have a challenging role, but when a child with autism is in the class, an additional level of expertise is required to ensure a good level of education for that pupil. It is therefore eminently sensible that teachers are given the tools required to achieve the best education possible for the specific pupil. Regardless of what disabilities or problems pupils have, they all deserve to attain their maximum possible potential in an educational setting. Ensuring that teachers and classroom assistants are given the correct training is a step in achieving that.

We are all aware of the challenges that local education faces in general, but I ask the Minister to explore the introduction of mandatory autism training to ensure the best possible educational outcomes for all pupils, even those on reduced timetables. One parent has told me that an entire class will benefit from such an approach, as the training aids the staff in dealing proactively with autistic pupils and minimises the time required to deal with a specific pupil. All pupils will therefore benefit from teachers receiving training. Minister, I appreciate that budgets are very tight in your Department; however, some investment in this aspect of teacher training will provide tangible and very worthwhile benefits for those children with autism. I support the motion.

Mr Carroll: I put out word to my constituents about this topic, and I have been overwhelmed by messages, emails and responses from people with autism, parents, teachers and classroom assistants. I am sure that other Members are the same. Indeed, it is fair to say I have been inundated on the issue since I was first elected to the Chamber in 2016, almost four years ago.

It is very clear that our current system is not working for too many people with autism and many with other learning disabilities. Education workers who have been in the field for years tell of a dire situation within our education system, where fundamental problems see children left under-supported. Too many are unable to get statemented, too many are left with no offer from a school each September because of their statement, and too many do not get the proper educational support even when they have been statemented.

All those failings can have serious impacts going forward. We see people with autism experiencing mental health problems because of a lack of support services, and we see children underachieving educationally because of a lack of provision. We also have working-class families being forced to pay privately to get their children diagnosed with autism. None of this is good enough, and it is totally unacceptable.

None of this touches on the impact of under-provision and misrepresentation outside of school time, such as the fact that people have to fundraise to pay for respite or even basic facilities and services, or the fact that negative and harmful stereotypes about people with autism are still perpetuated in society. Disgracefully, autism was used last week by a Fine Gael elected member as a slur on somebody else in the general election campaign in the South. Too often, the term has been used as an attempt to delegitimise Greta Thunberg’s campaign and as a slur against her. People with autism deserve much better than that, but, unfortunately, on these issues they are being failed.

We absolutely endorse training and education as essential criteria for supporting people with autism, but we also know that much more must be done on top of that to slash waiting times and to address the wider issues such as underinvestment in education in general, bigger class sizes and a lack of access to classroom assistants, to name but a few.

We are clear that, whatever mandatory training is put in place, it must not be a tick-box exercise but must be wide-reaching and encompass all the research that has been found to support children with autism. It should be adaptive to react to the different levels and types of support that different pupils with different needs require. We must ensure that the development of this training programme has the input of people with autism and of teachers and classroom assistants who are across the current failings in the system and who know that, because of educational attainment or gender, some children can be overlooked or dismissed as acting out.

We absolutely must ensure that our teachers and classroom assistants, who do the utmost to support their classes and their children and who are already overworked and due a pay rise, see the necessary investment in education to ensure that children with autism get the support they deserve in a sustainable way. To do that, we must address the underspend in education. Without extra support, extra funding and extra classroom assistants, the whole provision of extra training may be futile, because under-pressure teachers and assistants may not have the time or space to put the whole thing into practice.

Finally, and importantly, we have to be careful that the provision of mandatory training for autism in mainstream schools is not used as an excuse to shut down special needs schools. In 2018, I led a campaign alongside teachers, classroom assistants, trade unionists, parents and pupils of special needs schools in Belfast against the closure of special needs schools, and I have no doubt that, if plans emerge again to try to shut down or amalgamate special needs schools, a similar campaign will be back on the streets of our city of Belfast, with all the ferocity that existed before.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House should take its ease until then. The Minister has been allocated 15 minutes to respond, and the Members who will make winding-up speeches on the amendments have been allocated five minutes each. We are less than 10 minutes away from 2.00 pm, so I suggest that the House takes it ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir.

The debate stood suspended.

Debate resumed on amendments to motion:

That this Assembly recognises the specific needs of pupils with autism in our schools; values and supports the role of all educators in ensuring pupils with autism have the best educational outcomes; and calls on the Minister of Education to explore the introduction of mandatory autism training for all teachers and classroom assistants. — [Mrs Cameron.]

Which amendments were:

Leave out all after “Education” and insert:

“to introduce mandatory autism training for all trainee teachers, teachers and classroom assistants.” — [Miss Woods.]

At end insert:

“, and for teacher training colleges to introduce a compulsory module that includes this training during the postgraduate certificate in education.” — [Ms Mullan.]

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): At the outset of this conclusion to the debate, I thank all Members for their valuable contributions. I pay tribute, as others have, to the various groups that have been involved with autism. The contributions that we have had, perhaps, show the merits of all-party groups. Many Members have spoken with the background of having gone through the evidence in the all-party groups. Autism can be an emotive and significant subject, particularly for those families who have children with autism. It is clear we have seen a considerable consensus across the Chamber on the issue.

I will maybe start with the two amendments. They perhaps have nuances of difference, but the general direction of travel is the same for both. To that extent, therefore, at the start of my summing up, I am happy to indicate my support for either or both amendments and, indeed, the motion itself. I will not seek to divide the House on the nuances of difference between the two amendments.

The growth in recognition and diagnosis of autism has, as some Members highlighted, been a welcome development in recent years, but that has then created a need for more awareness and training. Ten years ago, the figure for those diagnosed with autism was around 1·2%. Today, it is 3·3%, and, as a number of Members indicated, that is the equivalent of about one child per class. That is because there has been a growing recognition of autism. I do not believe it is because there has been a particular change, in any form, of the condition. It is actually that, for many pupils who in previous years went undiagnosed, there is a much greater opportunity for that to be picked up.

When we look at the role of educational professionals, we can see that they are not qualified to make, or responsible for, the diagnosis of any child’s medical issue, but it is important that they are informed by the child’s experience, their views and their strengths and needs. Their role is to identify the impact on the child’s learning experience and participation within an inclusive educational system, and then, using that knowledge and those skills, they can adapt their practice to enable every child to fulfil their potential. We should always remember that every child is an individual and that their needs are always slightly different.

Provision of support for special education is based upon those individual needs, and specific support is required to meet the needs of the child. Those with special educational needs quite often have more than one type of need or difficulty, and therefore interventions are tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual child. For autism, special educational needs may include speech, language, communication, social interaction, behaviour and emotional and well-being challenges, and there is a direct responsibility on the Education Authority to ensure that training that it provides is equitable and balanced across a wide range of special educational needs.

I want to highlight three areas where there is pre-existing training. First of all, there is the autism advisory and intervention service that is provided by EA, which provides a wide range of autism spectrum disorder training on request. Through that intervention, last year, the latest figures we have show that 4,023 teachers and school staff accessed training from that. A number of Members have made this clear during the debate, and it has been highlighted by the unions: that is a good service. Is it adequate in and of itself? No, I do not believe that it is, and that has been highlighted particularly by the Ulster Teachers’ Union. That has been identified by the EA itself; it has identified the need for a more strategic development of regional training. Even the EA has accepted that what is there is not sufficient.

The Middletown Centre for Autism has been mentioned, and that is funded jointly by my Department and the Department of Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland. I know that a number of Members have visited the Middletown centre, and I certainly encourage them to do so. It operates as a second-tier service to the EA to augment its autism training programme. It has built a reputation for excellence in the quality of its services, as confirmed by independent joint inspections in 2012 and 2016. Middletown provides a comprehensive range of online training and advisory services for educational professionals, parents, children and other allied health professionals. It is a one-stop shop to support children with autism in their education setting and, as was mentioned by a number of Members, it takes a holistic approach. The support that is available at home is also critical.

Mr McGrath: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Weir: Yes, I will give way.

Mr McGrath: You mentioned other places. Do you recognise that the informal education sector — in other words, the Youth Service — can also provide an invaluable resource to help with the socialisation of young people with autism, and that there are some excellent examples out there? As part of today’s debate, you could maybe bring back to the Department how some work within the Youth Service could be strengthened going forward.

Mr Weir: While we want to provide the best of services, that will quite often involve a cocktail of measures. It is not simply a one-off. The Member is right, and I know that a number of the Youth Service providers have, for instance, received excellent inspection reports, particularly when dealing with the issues around autism. I certainly acknowledge that.

Middletown provides a fully integrated suite of services, including a cohesive transdisciplinary learning support and assessment service combined with research and training, alongside opportunities for family support. The latest figures show that, during the 12 years of its interventions, it has delivered training to over 33,000 professionals. Many educational professionals access the training through this, and they are free to access it. Provision of tailored special educational needs training specific to need, coupled with school-based support and an incremental approach to service delivery, has been the current model and is to ensure that knowledge and understanding gained from any training is fully integrated. Training programmes are largely focused on upskilling educational professionals, enhancing the capacity of educational institutions to support children with autism in their education setting and in the home, and providing parents with support.

One of the outcomes of the capacity-building project, which was established in response to the 2017 Northern Ireland Audit Office ‘Special Educational Needs’ report, is that training in special educational needs, including autism, for teachers and those studying is a key focus of the Learning Leaders oversight group, which is chaired by my Department and involves a range of stakeholders. The purpose of this is to provide strategic direction in design and development. That oversight group was established in March 2017, following publication of the report.

There are many special educational needs in our schools. It is important that we get balance but also have a focus on autism. Through identification, we have seen a rising number of children with SEN. There has been mention of the overall costs of around £280 million to the Education budget, which is the latest assessment. Obviously, we need to ensure that we get the best possible delivery for our young people and the best possible value for our money. So, we have to caveat this slightly on the basis of what resources are available.

Mr Durkan raised the issue of the Western Trust. The one thing I can give an assurance on is that my Department will not be handing back any money in terms of spend on children, particularly resource spend. We will often be going to the Finance Minister to look for more, but there will not be any underspend in the Department of Education.

Despite the pressures that are there, we can think imaginatively. We are looking at where we are with this. The capacity-building group perhaps provides a template to look holistically at both CPD and initial teacher education. We need to see a step change in what we provide for special educational needs. I hope to launch a consultation and framework for special educational needs in the spring. That will provide a coordinated approach to autism and other special educational needs. All these things are multi-agency and multi-departmental in their nature, and there has been criticism of some other Departments. The second progress report on the current autism strategy, which is being done by the Department of Health in conjunction with other Departments, is also due to launch soon.

Ultimately, the big issue is how we move on from here. There has been mention of initial teacher education. The point is well made that, if we are to embed what is there, the starting point is to ensure that teachers coming out in the first place do so with this level of knowledge. I should put a little bit of a caveat in that because, ultimately, initial teacher education is paid for by the Department for the Economy. I cannot make a pledge that actually spends someone else’s money. The curriculum is controlled by the higher education institutions themselves. While there has been some autism training available, there is a concern that its depth is not sufficient. We need to move to a situation where it is embedded in initial teacher education and then, in the wider context, ensure a roll-out of mandatory training.

Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing the intervention. I welcome him to his place at the dispatch box and wish him well as he carries on the work that he started before the institutions were suspended.

Minister, there had been talk of a new ASD behaviour unit to be located in north Belfast. That could not be progressed because of the collapse of the institutions. Having spoken to local principals and teachers, I ask the Minister to look at this as one of his priorities.

Mr Weir: I am happy to give the assurance that we will take a look at that. We need to make sure that we have the right network of facilities.

There is no hidden agenda to look to abolish any form of special schools. It is about getting balance.

All our teachers, in special and mainstream schools, have to be highly skilled in supporting pupils with autism to succeed, and it is important, therefore, that our educational professions are appropriately skilled. It is clear that, while what we have been doing up until now has made a valuable contribution, it is falling short of the mark, and we need to embed that level of knowledge within our professions.

5.15 pm

There are imaginative solutions that the proposer of the motion and others have come up with. We can see, for example, as part of the SEN framework, that there will be an opportunity, as we move ahead, to embed within the so-called Baker days some provision and a recommendation that they should use those days particularly for SEN training. That could provide a level of focus on autism.

There is a unity of spirit here. The issue, therefore, is a question not of whether but of how we do this. From that point of view, I am not doctrinaire as to precisely how we reach that end point, but it is clear, given the growing needs that we have in the greatly increased level of identification of autism and, therefore, the prevalence in mainstream and specialised schools, that we do need to deliver better.

I will be happy to work with others to ensure that there is access to adequate, appropriate training programmes in initial teacher education and in continuing professional development. That has to borrow heavily from the experience of parents and teachers. Sometimes, there is a tendency for the Assembly or Ministers to almost dictate from above. It is important, if we are to have something that is fit for purpose, that it learns from the experience of families and what works directly for teachers.

That is the commitment I give. We will ensure, then, that we move towards that system, which means, therefore, that the proper provision is made and proper awareness, recognition and training are put in place. I welcome the rest of the debate.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you very much, Minister. I call upon Chris Lyttle to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 2.

Mr Lyttle: It is amendment No 1, Principal Deputy Speaker. No?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Yes. I beg your pardon.

Mr Lyttle: No problem. Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. It is a privilege for me to respond to this motion. To begin with, I would like to read into the record a contribution that I have received from a parent of a child with autism in relation to the debate. It reads:

“Dear Chris,

Please keep pushing for mandatory autism training for teachers.

My son was diagnosed with autism in June of P6, and a number of his teachers were unable to recognise indicators earlier. I don’t think they believed my concerns because he is high-functioning. He was constantly punished for behaviour beyond his control. His confidence plummeted; he didn’t want to go to school; his learning was affected. It was a dreadful year that could’ve been easier if people were trained, equipped and supported to respond.

Please keep pushing so that another family doesn’t have to suffer the way we did. We had both to adjust to autism at home and fight for our son at school. Because of his autism, and the pattern-based way in which he learns, if he didn’t know an answer on his post-primary transfer academic selection papers, he couldn’t move on to the next because a pattern had been broken. He had to withdraw from the academic selection process for his mental health, and his choices were instantly reduced.

Our son is bright and been diagnosed as high-functioning but that doesn’t matter as academic selection processes appear to make no allowance for a child who thinks differently. Their minds aren’t standardised but they are meant to fit into standardised tests. They can’t, so they’re rejected and they have no choice. It is a disgrace.

I torture myself by wondering would it have been different if staff had autism training, understanding and support.”

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to ensure that that contribution from a parent of a child with autism has been heard today. The motion tabled by Pam Cameron MLA, the chairperson of the all-party group on autism, gives the Assembly the opportunity to recognise the unacceptable challenges and the breach of rights that children and families living with autism in Northern Ireland face; to recognise that many children and families living with autism in Northern Ireland feel unsupported and, indeed, failed by our education, statementing and health systems; to recognise the failure to fully implement the Autism Act and the autism strategy; and to recognise the need to train and resource our valued teaching staff to identify and respond to the additional needs of many pupils in our schools.

That opportunity has been taken by MLAs today. They have identified the centrality of autism teacher training and support to early intervention. They have recognised that the timeline for action has been lengthy and delivery is needed now and that, in the absence of this provision, not only educational attainment but children’s mental health and family finances are affected. They have also recognised that excellent resources exist, in the likes of the Middletown Centre for Autism, but that investment and mandated access is needed.

The motion tabled by Pam Cameron MLA, and the amendment tabled by Rachel Woods MLA and I, gives the Assembly the opportunity to support the widespread campaign calling on the Minister of Education to introduce mandatory autism training for all trainee teachers and teaching staff.

I ask Members to support the motion and amendment, and call on all Ministers with responsibility for implementing the Autism Act and strategy commitments to attend and brief the all-party Assembly group on autism as to how they will deliver on those commitments. Importantly, they should start with the training and resources needed by our teachers to deliver early intervention and educational opportunity for children with autism and additional needs in our community.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind the House that, as this is Catherine Kelly’s first opportunity to speak as a private Member, it is the convention that a maiden speech be made without interruption.

Ms C Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. The number of children diagnosed with autism has risen by 20% in the last 10 years here. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed, and, even more alarming, the rate of autism in more deprived communities is 58% higher than the average. Resources should reflect the higher prevalence of need in more deprived communities and among boys, but mandatory autism training for all teachers and classroom assistants is a basic first step.

Autism is a developmental issue, and teachers are in the business of developing children’s potential. From personal experience, having worked in Naiscoil na gCrann in Omagh, I must say that helping children to fulfil their potential is very rewarding, and I want to take a moment to recognise the amazing work carried out in my constituency of West Tyrone by teachers and others, and organisations such as the National Autistic Society, west branch, in Omagh, who have been working for many years with children with autism and their families. West Tyrone has a high proportion of children and young people, many living in lower income families, but we do very well in education. Barriers can be overcome, and potential can be developed. Our schools and teachers need proper support. We would not expect a plumber or electrician to do a proper job without the right set of tools. Give our teachers the right set of tools that allow them to understand the specific needs of children and young people with autism.

In addition, let us do something we often fail to do: let us listen to the children and young people themselves. I ask all Members to support amendment No 1 and to recognise the need for compulsory training for those in teacher-training colleges and undertaking a PGCE. We need to ensure a proper foundation of support and education for our children and young people, teachers and classroom assistants.

I thank all those who contributed to the debate.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Let me be the first to congratulate the Member on making her maiden speech. It is sometimes intimidating to stand for the first time to do that, so congratulations to the Member. I call Mr William Humphrey to make the winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Humphrey: I congratulate you on your elevation to the position of Principal Deputy Speaker. I wish you well in that new role.

I thank my colleague the Member for South Antrim Pam Brown for securing the debate and, indeed, for the agreement that she has managed to achieve across the House. That does not always happen on this issue, which is, of course, hugely important in Members’ constituencies.

There has been a 62% increase in the number of school-age children diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland in the past five years. Department of Health research reveals the prevalence of autism in the classroom. As other Members said, it affects at least one child in each classroom. Therefore, the Programme for Government needs to deal with the issues. There needs to be real adjustments made to support autistic children and, more importantly, to allow teachers to carry out those adjustments.

If teachers are trained and given the skills, and if strategies are implemented, children will achieve their full potential. No child with autism should miss out on a full and supportive education. That would be hugely impactful on our classrooms, on our society and, most importantly, on each individual child affected. The fact that one third of our children may be on a reduced timetable is totally unacceptable. Over 78% of those children are placed in mainstream education, and it is my view that all teaching staff in Northern Ireland should, over time, be trained.

Early intervention is more effective, more cost-effective and better for everyone involved. As with mental health, suicide and mental general well-being, a joined-up approach is required across Departments and with local government and government agencies.

I take the opportunity to thank all the principals, teachers and classroom assistants who work on autism in our schools across Northern Ireland day and daily. I have been dealing with a couple of cases recently in my office, where teachers are stressed to the max and principals do not know where to turn. We need to give clarity and certainty. We need to give those teachers the skills to allow them to carry out their roles and functions so that they can provide the education that those young people need and give them the classroom environment to allow not just them, as individuals, but their peers to have an education that will make a positive change to their life. Formalised training is needed, and we also need to provide protection for teachers and classroom assistants. As I said, that will positively enhance young people’s education. Equity must be brought to the classroom through training for education professionals. Ulster’s schoolchildren must have parity with those across the rest of the United Kingdom.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to some people who have been making a huge contribution, not just in the classroom but in the community. Like Mr Lyttle, I want to read into the record the name of a lady in my constituency. Ashleigh Spence established Snowflakes, a group that is working with young people from across greater Belfast and outside the city boundaries. It is a group of parents that has come together to work with young people on the autistic spectrum. They have done fantastic work. Ashleigh wrote to me, knowing that the debate was happening today, and asked me to make a number of points.

First, she asks how the training be delivered and by whom. She makes the point that it should be no less than the training provided to parents once diagnosis is confirmed. The initial classes are delivered by various specialists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists etc. They cover the reasoning behind understanding and strategies to identify managed behaviours. The classes are delivered in three or four sessions. A one-day PowerPoint presentation is not going to be of any use to teachers or classroom assistants. She says that they need true understanding. I think that we would all agree with that.

She also asks how success will be measured. What impact will the training of teaching staff have on the allocation of additional classroom assistants and support for children in mainstream schooling? Will there be extra resource for schools to implement strategies learned via the training? If the teacher has the training and learns of a resource to help a child in a class — for example, a visual timetable, scheduling board or wobble cushion — will funds be available for teachers to purchase or obtain such items? All those issues are important. Extra resource is needed, and it is therefore important that we all take those issues on board.

I also pay tribute to that lady because she is also involved in my scout district, and I declare an interest as the president of North West Belfast District Scout Council. We have a scout group in our district that is specifically for young children who have ASD. This young lady works with that group, and she is doing valuable work. We need to support those people in the classroom.

5.30 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am really sorry —.

Mr Humphrey: We need to support those in the community who are working hard. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: It is not my afternoon. It is all right.

Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that, if it is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the specific needs of pupils with autism in our schools; values and supports the role of all educators in ensuring pupils with autism have the best educational outcomes; and calls on the Minister of Education to introduce mandatory autism training for all trainee teachers, teachers and classroom assistants.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease while there is a change at the top Table.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)