A Senate Select Committee on Autism has recommended the Australian Government develop a National Autism Strategy within the next 12 months to coordinate efforts to improve life outcomes for autistic Australians.
The recommendation – which sits at the heart of the Committee’s proposed reform pathway – is one of 81 made in a report tabled in Federal Parliament last month.
The Committee released its report following a broad reaching national inquiry into the issues facing autistic Australians. It recommended the strategy be co-designed with autistic people and the autism community, and that it align with other national strategies – including the National Disability Strategy – to address whole-of-life needs.
Life outcomes for autistic Australians
Approximately 650,000 Australians are autistic, and the Committee found life outcomes for this group of people were unacceptably poor. Examples include:
- Autistic people have a life expectancy more than 20 years shorter than the general population, with more than twice the mortality rate.
- Autistic people experience high rates of co-occurring mental health conditions and are more likely to attempt or commit suicide than other groups.
- Seventy-five per cent of autistic people do not complete more than a Year 12 education, while the unemployment rate for autistic people is almost eight times that of people without disability.
- Autistic people also appear to be overrepresented in the justice system and at higher risk of homelessness than the general population.
- Inclusion of autistic people in the community is poor, with many experiencing loneliness, isolation, exclusion and discrimination. Significant numbers of autistic people report having no friends, other than family or paid staff.
- Many families/parents of an autistic child say they feel unwelcome at community events, or unable to leave the house, due to negative public reactions to their child’s autism.
“These are not simply statistics on a page,” said the report. “Behind each set of numbers are thousands of autistic children and adults who have been denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential and live healthy, safe and productive lives, as well as scores of families who have been pushed to breaking point.”
Complex and interrelated drivers
During its inquiry the Committee heard first-hand accounts of the devastating impact that a lack of support has on the lives of autistic Australians and their families. Key drivers of poor outcomes include:
- poor understanding of autism within the community and among service providers;
- workforce capacity constraints;
- delays in diagnosis and early intervention;
- a complex and poorly integrated service environment; and
- services that are not designed to meet the needs of autistic people.
However, the Committee said it was ‘encouraged by accounts of appropriately tailored support and good practices’ that had already ‘made a difference to the lives of some inquiry participants and the autism community more broadly’.
Report welcomed by disability sector and autism advocates
Co-Chair of the Australian Autism Alliance, Jenny Karavolos, welcomed the release of the report and said co-design was ‘an absolute must to enable effective and sustainable outcomes’.
“We strongly welcome a National Autism Strategy and support the Committee’s acknowledgment that generic disability strategies have not improved outcomes for autistic people,” said Ms Karavolos.
The Alliance has called for priority action on:
- Establishing a National Autism Strategy through co-design with autistic people and the community, with strong outcomes, targets, reporting and accountability measures.
- Developing a National Roadmap for improving health and mental health services for autistic people – something also called for by the Disability Royal Commission.
- Lifting Medicare rebates and removing the age cap for autism assessment and diagnosis, together with initiatives to drive timely and quality assessments.
- Jobs initiatives to shift the dial on employment for autistic people.
- Reforms to markedly increase inclusion and attainment in education and training.
- A National Autism Workforce plan to build autism capability of key frontline workforces.
The landmark report – which includes recommendations regarding diagnosis, education, health care, housing, social inclusion, advocacy, research, justice, rights, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme – was also welcomed by Monique Blakemore, an advocate and mother of two autistic boys.
This is just the beginning
Labor Senator Carol Brown, the Committee’s deputy chair, said regardless of the result at the May federal election, the report’s recommendations must be adopted to redress the inequities faced by the autistic community.
“It’s now where the hard work begins, the report cannot be the end, but the start,” said Senator Brown.