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It is now over ten years since the passing of the Autism Act 2009, which is still the only disability-specific piece of legislation in England. The Act required the Government to introduce an adult autism strategy, which was published in 2010 and refreshed in 2014. The accompanying statutory guidance sets out requirements for the NHS and local authorities to implement the strategy, in areas such as training for staff, identification and diagnosis, transition planning when people move from children to adult services, employment and criminal justice.   

The Government is now undertaking a comprehensive review of the autism strategy and will be extending it to include children and young people for the first time. A consultation was launched in March 2019, and the Government is due to publish its response. The revised strategy was originally due to be published towards the end of 2019, however no update has yet been given for an expected publication date.

There have been successive health policies to improve outcomes for people with autism. Most recently, the NHS Long Term Plan (2019) provides several objectives for people with autism, including: the introduction of a ‘digital flag’ in the patient record by 2023/24, to ensure staff know a patient has autism; ensuring reasonable adjustments are made so that wider NHS services can support people with learning disabilities or autism; and piloting the introduction of a specific health check for people with autism.

There are however concerns around diagnosis, particularly for children, with increasing waiting times from referral to diagnostic assessment in some areas. NICE guidance recommends a maximum waiting time of 3 months from referral to assessment however the latest local authority self-assessment (2018) found that the median reported waiting time from referral to diagnostic assessment was 30 weeks. In a recent debate, the Minister for Care said that this “postcode lottery” must end and explained that new data on autism waiting times would help hold local authorities to account. [1]  

The Government and NHS have also focused on reducing levels of inpatient care for people with a learning disability and/or autism. The Department of Health and Social Care has said that hospitals are not where people should live and committed to move people to community-based support. However, ambitions for this have been postponed. The most recent target, as detailed in the NHS Long Term Plan, is for a reduction in inpatient provision of 50% (compared to 2015 levels) by 2023/24.

The Government has also committed to introducing mandatory training on learning disabilities and autism for health and social care staff. Trials will begin in health and social care settings by April 2020, and report by March 2021, after which wider roll-out of training is expected for all staff.

This note focuses on policies in England. Health is a devolved matter so each of the devolved administrations are responsible for setting their own policies in this area. However, the note briefly outlines strategies implemented by the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in section 8.

This note also describes policies in the areas of employment, education and social security.

[1]     HC Deb 21 March 2019 c1304

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