Will the English SEND reforms improve early intervention for children with autism? By Danae Leaman-Hill.

The early years of any child’s life are of vital importance, but this is particularly true of autistic children. The sooner an autistic child’s needs are identified and understood, the sooner they can access the right support and interventions (therapies and strategies) that will help them get ready for school and adult life.

We know that a lengthy wait for a formal diagnosis of autism creates knock-on delays in children getting the right education, health and social care support down the line. Nearly 90% of autistic children currently wait longer than the thirteen-week NHS target for their diagnosis but even when a child does receive an autism diagnosis, this does not mean they will have immediate access to support.

■ People who understand autism.

Currently, local authorities must decide whether to grant an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), a legal document that describes a child or young person’s special educational, health and social care needs, within twenty weeks of the initial assessment. However, in over half of cases this deadline is missed, meaning too many children are not getting the right support in their early years.

It was recently revealed that the Department for Education wants to see a 20% reduction in the numbers of new EHCPs issued. This figure was included as a target in the contract for its ‘Delivering Better Value’ programme, despite the then Minister for SEND denying that such a target is government policy. At the time of writing, we have no updated statement from the Department on this issue. But it cuts to the heart of the SEND reform aims: financial sustainability, families’ experiences, and outcomes for young people.

Any target to reduce numbers of EHCPs creates perverse incentives that will lead to children with SEND missing out on the support they need and are entitled to. But let’s assume best intentions: that the government wants more children with SEND to have their needs met earlier, and that as a by-product, the numbers of children who need EHCPs will do down.

What would it look like if the government’s focus for SEND was to meet children’s and families’ needs at the earliest possible stage? What are the big policy levers they could pull to make this happen? These are our top five, with a focus on autism as our area of expertise, but with applicability across SEND.

Spoiler alert—you’ll spot a theme. We sometimes talk about ‘early intervention’ as though it’s a thing you insert into a setting or situation to help a child. In our experience, the biggest factor in early intervention for autistic children is having people who understand autism working in the places where children go. If the government is serious about early intervention, it needs to get much more serious about the SEND capacity in the children’s workforce, and quickly.

■ An autistic child needs adults who understand them.

So, what could the government do now to improve early intervention?

1. Roll out mandatory autism training for all education staff, including those in nurseries. Five years ago, this sounded like an unrealistic aim. Since then, the government has made autism training mandatory for all health and care staff, with positive results. Autistic children are more likely to be excluded, to be absent, and to underachieve than their peers. We won’t fix this until every autistic child finds adults who understand them in their nursery or school.

2. Publish a long-term, funded SEND workforce strategy, so we have enough people with the right skills to support children in universal services, to carry out assessments for EHCPs and to provide the specialist interventions children need. Announcements on more training for SENCOs and educational psychologists are welcome, but they continue the government’s piecemeal approach to a fundamental strategic challenge. Such a strategy should cover everything from reintroducing SEND into the initial teacher training framework, to recruitment drives for much needed SLTs and OTs, to support for social workers to better understand autism.

3. Pilot ways to support better joint working between special and mainstream schools. If the government wants to support more autistic children to thrive in mainstream schools, we need to look at what special schools deliver for autistic children and see how much of that we can embed in mainstream settings. Some partnerships like this already exist, but they do so in spite of current funding arrangements, rather than because of them. The government could unlock this potential by piloting more flexible use of existing funds.

■ We need more staff who understand autism.

If we want financial sustainability and, more importantly, better lives for children with SEND, we need better early intervention. If we want better early intervention, we need more staff in nurseries and schools that understand autism, we need a SEND workforce strategy that means children get help from the right professionals when they need it, and we need to unlock the latent potential in partnerships between mainstream and special schools.

Danae Leaman-Hill
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Danae Leaman-Hill Director of External Affairs and Development Ambitious About Autism

Website: ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk
Social media accounts: @ambitiousaboutautism


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