On Thursday 30 November I took part in a debate about mental health and suicide in the autistic community. Following my recent surgery for autistic adults and parents of autistic children in Bristol, I described how we still have more to do to make the UK autism-friendly. Public spaces and services that are not accessible to autistic people breed isolation, exclusion and – in turn – poor mental health.
We need to take real action to correct this. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have found that roughly 40 per cent of autistic young people have symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder at any time, compared to up to 15 per cent in the general population.
In my speech I called upon all of us in Parliament to show leadership. I’m campaigning to make Bristol an autism-friendly city, and my constituency office team has had training from the National Autistic Society and the Bristol Autism Spectrum Service in how to make our workplace autism-friendly. But I also suggested that Parliament itself could take the upcoming refurbishment programme as an opportunity to make the House of Commons more accessible. A quieter, calmer, more welcoming Parliament would not only benefit autistic people who want to participate in democracy, but would be a benefit to us all.
Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West)
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for bringing this debate before us and the hon. Member for East Kilbride etc. for leading on it. I also wish to say a special thank you to Mr Speaker and Mrs Bercow, who have done so much to support autism awareness in the House and beyond, particularly through their support for the National Autistic Society.
I should make a declaration of personal interest: I have a young cousin on the autistic spectrum, and I am married to someone who runs a special educational school for people with autism. My constituency team has also prioritised making Bristol an autism-friendly city. We have made a start, but we have more to do. We have held a training event for employers on how to make reasonable adjustments in recruitment and employment practices, and have had training for my team and made some adjustments ourselves.
That matters because unemployment is unacceptably high among people with autism, which contributes to mental ill health. According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of adults with autism are in full-time paid work, and only 32% are in some kind of paid work, compared with 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people, and we know that unemployment affects mental health and self-esteem. The Government have committed to halving this autism employment gap by the end of this Parliament. In the interests of the mental health of people on the autistic spectrum, I urge the Minister to urge her colleagues to do everything they can to meet that much-needed target.
I have heard from schools in my constituency that funding pressures are affecting their specialist provision for children with special educational needs and mental health problems. Some families have told me that they have experienced effective or partial exclusion from school because of a lack of understanding of autism or of specialist support. That in turn leads to further mental health problems and is exacerbated by a lack of autism-focused specialist mental healthcare and high demand for mental healthcare generally. They have also told me of brilliant support and help from some teachers and schools, but they have fears about staff changes and worries about funding.
I have talked to public venues about what they can do with the help of the National Autistic Society and others to make themselves more autism-friendly. It cannot be acceptable that, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ briefing for this debate, autistic people are more than seven times more likely than non-autistic people to commit suicide and that so many young people on the spectrum have at least one anxiety disorder. None of us wants to accept this, and we do not have to, and there is much we can do.
As I have said, my team has made autism a priority. In association with the fantastic Bristol Autism Support service and the local branch of the National Autistic Society, we recently held what we think was the country’s first MP constituency surgery specifically for adults with autism and parents of children on the autistic spectrum. I encourage all colleagues to do likewise, and I am happy to talk to them about how we did it. It meant that adults with autism and the parents of children with autism could come and tell us about challenges they faced with simple things such as transport and public spaces, as well as housing and employment, all of which affect mental health.
I am not going to repeat things that hon. Members have already said, particularly the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and so on—I am so sorry, I cannot pronounce the last bit.
Madam Deputy Speaker
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Lady comprehensively listed recommendations that I urge the Minister to follow. I will finish by recommending two things. First, I suggest that hon. Members who care about autism and the 1% of our population who are on the autism spectrum consider, as I have done, asking a member of staff to champion that cause. I work closely with my member of staff, Councillor Mike Davies, who is our local autism lead on the council and within my own team. He has patiently taught me a great deal about how to make Bristol a truly autism-friendly city. We have a lot more to do, but I know that, with someone like Mike, I will be able to do much more than I would otherwise have done.
Secondly, I would like us to take a leap. In the House restoration and renewal programme, we could decide to work with the National Autistic Society to make this place autism-friendly. Doing so would help not just people on the autistic spectrum, including children and their parents, but all of us. It would make the place calmer, more welcoming and truly more accessible for everyone. It would be the mother of Parliaments leading by example to the rest of the country so that we can truly make the United Kingdom autism-friendly and address the chronic levels of mental ill health and suicide risk for people on the autism spectrum. I recommend that colleagues consider the suggestions that have been made by me and my team, and by others in this House.