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‘Autism plus’ policies unlawfully restricting autistic children’s rights to care, report says

At least 41 councils in the UK have policies that are restricting social care needs assessments and unlawfully impeding the rights of disabled children with autism, a new report has suggested.

The report from the Disability Law Service highlighted 41 authorities (out of 149 surveyed) that require autistic children to have an additional impairment or a formal diagnosis of autism to qualify for a social care needs assessment.

The 41 councils that use the so-called ‘autism plus’ policies generally link autism to an additional requirement such as another impairment or a formal diagnosis of autism for the child to be eligible for an assessment and gain access to support by a Children with Disabilities team.

According to the Disabillity Law Service's report, ‘autism plus’ policies constitute a non-statutory barrier to disabled children’s support services under the Children Act 1989 and the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 and are unlawful.

Since some council policies of this kind require a formal diagnosis of autism, it “would appear also to constitute unlawful discrimination contrary to the Equality Act 2010 on grounds of sex – as materially more young men have an autism diagnosis than young women”.

‘Autism plus’ policies also contravene the Equalities Act 2010 on a number of grounds, the report says.

Beverley Hitchcock, Deputy Head of Research at Cerebra said that the charity has seen an increase in referrals to their Legal Rights Service from families with a child with autism “who had been refused an assessment on the basis that autism as a condition was not enough on its own, or that autism was not recognised as a medical condition or that the child had not, as yet, had a formal diagnosis”.

Priya Bahri of Disability Law Service and the lead author of the report said that families are often pushed to a breaking point because of the barriers keeping them from receiving adequate support.

She added: “The Children Act 1998 provides that disabled children are entitled to services that meet their needs and therefore policies which prevent this from happening need to be urgently reviewed and changed. We hope that we can make positive change with this campaign to ensure that every disabled child has access to services and support that meets their needs”.

But Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said that the demand for support has risen and councils are doing “all they can” to respond.

“Councils and their partners are doing all they can to support children with all forms of special educational needs and their families.

“However councils are under huge strain as a result of the rising demand for support – seeing an increase of 10 per cent in Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in the last 12 months alone.

“It was good the Government acknowledged this with additional funding for council high needs budgets for 2020/21. This needs to be followed by the Government using its planned review of the SEND system to ensure it works effectively for everyone, along with sufficient long-term funding for councils, and the powers to hold partners to account for their work to support children and young people with SEND.”

Adam Carey

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