Autism is classed as a disability and all children with disabilities have a right to an assessment of their needs. So why were so many children with autism being denied an assessment?
This was the question examined by student researchers at the School of Law, University of Leeds as part of our Legal Entitlements and Problem Solving Project (LEaP).
Background to the study
Our LEaP Project has been developed with the School of Law at the University of Leeds. The Project’s aim is to provide information and support to families who are experiencing difficulties in accessing health, social care and other services.
The Project Team have produced many information sources such as parent guides, factsheets, myth busters and template letters. These resources have stemmed from the information and queries received from families regarding the different ways in which public bodies are forming a barrier to families accessing crucial support services. The LEaP Project endeavours to provide accurate and comprehensible information to as many families as possible via these resources.
In addition to this, student researchers at the University of Leeds Law School carry out annual research projects on some of the common themes arising from the LEaP casework. Professor Luke Clements, who leads the Project, provides guidance and support to the students with assistance from Dr Ana Laura Aiello. For this particular research project on ‘Autism Plus’ Policies, the team was benefited with the collaboration of Damarie Kalonzo (a postgraduate researcher).
The student project this year was developed in partnership with the Disability Law Service and the BBC. The project was influenced by the number of reports received from families explaining that their local authority had denied their child with autism an assessment of their needs. Several of the local authorities told families this was due to the fact that children with autism didn’t meet their eligibility criteria for care and support.
Summary of the research and its findings
The first phase of the research consisted of students considering the policies of 149 English local authorities to consider whether their eligibility criteria was ‘functional’. Shockingly, only 94 of the policies were deemed to be functional. The students then assessed these policies to establish whether there were restrictions in place to obstruct children with autism from accessing an assessment of their needs and subsequent support required to meet those needs.
Worryingly, at least 41 out of the ‘functional’ policies were unlawful as they discriminated against children with autism. A number of local authorities made specific reference to autism within their policies stating that autistic children could only have their needs assessed if they also had another impairment such as a ‘severe learning or physical disability’. The student project for 2019/20 was therefore labelled the ‘Autism Plus’ Policies Project. Local authorities who adopt ‘Autism Plus’ policies of this kind must therefore be of the opinion that autism alone is not serious enough to receive social care support.
Developing students’ skills
Following the research, Professor Luke Clements and Dr Ana Laura Aiello asked the students to provide feedback on the extent their work on the project had improved their skills in a number of areas.
Every student fed back that their skills in the following areas had improved ‘a little’ or ‘some’:
- personal confidence and
- personal organisation.
However, students experienced the most improvement (saying their skills had improved ‘a lot’) in the following areas:
- research skills (68.4% of students),
- attention to detail (63.2%),
- awareness of ethical issues (63.2%) and
- their understanding of disability law (52.6%).
Other areas students said they had improved in was their analytical and presenting skills. One student even fed back that they had learnt about alternative pathways for their law career as a result of taking part in the research.
The feedback was very positive and several students expressed how much they enjoyed the fact that they were able to contribute to a meaningful project that has the potential to bring about much needed change to the lives of families with disabled children with autism. One student said:
“The sense of accomplishment I had after the project was immense. I felt very grateful that I was able to provide help to people who need it, that I may have a contribution to make a much needed change.”
Download the complete report here to read more about the students’ findings, the law surrounding this issue and some case studies.