On Friday I attended a meeting entitled ‘Consultation on draft Strategy for meeting the needs of Children and Young People with Autism in North Yorkshire’.
It was the last of 13 such meetings organised by the Access & Inclusion office of North Yorkshire County Council conducted over a 12-week period. As such, it was billed as
an opportunity to let us know what changes and improvements you would like to see and also to tell us what is working well.
The results of the consultations are to be reported to the Executive Members for the Children and Young People’s Service (so called since 2006 when the Education and Children’s Social Care departments were amalgamated) in September this year.
We received notification of the consultation via a letter sent home from school with Harry. It was explained at the meeting that parents of all children with a Statement of SEN had been sent a letter but that those of children in mainstream school had not. In those cases, the SENCOs were given the responsibility of informing parents. However, it became clear at the meeting that news of the consultations had not filtered through to some parents of children in mainstream school and there was a feeling expressed that such children were ‘invisible’.
The meeting took place on a day when extreme weather conditions were forecast. There were deluges across Yorkshire and parts of Scarborough and Filey suffered flooding. Perhaps for this reason the consultation was poorly attended (or perhaps because it was the final meeting scheduled). There were only 5 parents along with 3 members of staff from Ryedale Special Families.
Andrew Terry, Assistant Director for Access & Inclusion set about explaining the draft strategy and how it would move things forward. He noted that, whilst there was a legal requirement for an autism strategy for adults, there was no such requirement for children and young people, a fact which shocked me.
I pointed out early on that the draft strategy referred to the age group of 0-19 and that, in the light of the government’s Green Paper, the strategy ought to mirror the new age range of 0-25. They acknowledged that there had not been time to alter this but that it would be changed by the time the strategy was finalised.
One of their priority actions is to work with the Voluntary Sector in increasing autism awareness through TESS (there are an awful lot of acronyms bandied about in such documentation) – Training Education Short Breaks Service. And to widen training in autism for professionals within NYCC. Parents noted examples of teachers in mainstream school who seemed to have little if any understanding of autism. It was also apparent that in some cases there was little by way of support for the child in school via ASCOSS (Autism Spectrum Condition Outreach Support Service) and none at all for parents.
They intend to increase the provision of parental support programmes such as Cygnet, Ascend, EarlyBird and EarlyBird Plus. I noted that I had never heard of these programmes and they needed to be more widely publicised. The council intend to produce a pack of information for parents of newly-diagnosed children. Those present noted that support groups were not always the first port of call for parents in this situation and I wondered whether a web page or other use of social media might provide a useful means of support for parents who felt physically and psychologically isolated.
The council has embraced the need for integrated assessment. It acknowledged that until quite recently there had been a ‘blockage’ in the assessment process based in Scarborough but it was felt that this had now been removed and the waiting period had been reduced to approximately 6mths. It was noted that during this time some parents had gone to Newcastle and had had a very good experience of the diagnosis pathway there. Unfortunately, this then caused difficulties back in North Yorkshire to the extent that one parent was accused by healthcare professionals, and I use the term loosely, of being ‘disloyal’. The council were aware of this particular case.
Another focus area is to give parents greater control and influence. Parents stated that they felt they had little choice when it came to choosing the right school for their child; that any choice was in fact removed. It was made clear that parents are the best sources of information about their child’s needs but that very often their voices are not heard.
Mr Terry then went on to talk about North Yorkshire being a Local Pathfinder for SEND. The council needs to identify gaps in provision and encourage better integration of services. They are aiming to achieve National Autistic Society accreditation for ASCOSS which may be difficult considering some parents experience (see above). I asked that they remove the requirement for students to apply to local post-19 colleges even when they had no hope of attaining the minimum entry level requirements. They seemed shocked and surprised that this was the case, agreed that it was pointless and promised to look into it.
He talked about the ‘Local Offer’ and that they were looking to introduce an element of residential living to provision in Scarborough. One of the parents present said that her children had chosen residential college courses because they wanted something to do after 4pm. I added that students are discouraged from mentioning extra-curricular activities when applying to these colleges becasue they are not supposed to be taken into account by the Local Authority. I also stated that courses needed to be ‘meaningful’ to students; not just opportunities for role-play. This is why residential living is an essential aspect of such courses.
Others attending the meeting were also able to highlight their own particular grievances. Mr Terry noted that they had had one or two cases brought to their attention at each consultation they had held and they had been able to look at them individually back at County Hall.
One parent noted that the provision of summer holiday activities was mired in unnecessary paperwork resulting in her son missing out on activities. Mr Terry did not see why multiple applications needed to be made.
Another parent who attended pointed out that the lack of social workers (there is only one) for the post-19 age group was having a serious impact on families in the Scarborough area. As a result she has two children who will be completing their studies at residential colleges this summer and will be coming home with no support package in place. She has been forced to resign from a job that she loves and which she is good at (in autism advocacy) as a result and pointed out that she and her adult sons will therefore become a burden to the state through no fault of their own.
I found this particularly depressing. What is the point of the council funding such expensive residential placements (approximately £40,000 per year) to give young people the independent living skills and job training they need if all they are going to do when they complete their courses is to end up back at home with mum and dad?
If parents or carers have been unable to attend a meeting and would like to inform NYCC of their views you can respond by the end of July 2012. I would urge all those with responsibility for young people or children with autism to make their views known. I will certainly be putting my views in writing.