HC Deb 20 March 1970 vol 798 cc867-75

  1. (1) It shall be the duty of every local education authority to provide the Secretary of State at such times as he may direct with information on the provision made by that local education authority of special educational facilities for children who suffer from autism or other forms of early childhood psychosis.
  2. (2) The arrangements made by a local education authority for the special educational treatment of children suffering from autism and other forms of early childhood psychosis shall, so far as is practicable, provide for the giving of such education in any school maintained or assisted by the local education authority.—[Mr. Ashley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ashley

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

We can discuss at the same time the hon. Gentleman's new Clause No. 16 "Special educational treatment for children suffering from chronic dyslexia".

Mr. Ashley

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

The purpose of new Clause No. 15 is to improve the provision for autistic children which at the moment is grossly inadequate. The National Society for Autistic Children has revealed some very interesting facts. Autism was first diagnosed less than 30 years ago. While the eyes and ears of children are normal, messages from these senses do not reach the brain properly because there is a fault with the link. This leads to disturbed behaviour and the children are unable to compre- hend a coherent picture of the world around them.

It is a common mistake to assume that autistic children are subnormal. It is an unfortunate mistake because many autistic children are of average or above average intelligence. Yet it has been estimated that 700 of the 3,700 autistic children are in mentally subnormal units who should not be there. Such children are helpless and bewildered, and they are deprived of hope. A sad situation is made into a tragic siuation because the effect on the child is catastrophic. Either the child becomes more withdrawn and totally silent, or it becomes even more severely disturbed.

Some visiting parents must watch the deterioration of their children with despair. Others who are driven to desperation and can stand no longer watching the degeneration of their children simply stop visiting, so that the child's last link with normality is lost.

What can be done? There is no medical treatment for autistic children. But there is educational provision, and there are technological devices which can be of considerable assistance. Trained teachers can help. If the provisions enumerated in the new Clause are enacted, autistic children will be helped to find the world a less puzzling and less terrifying place. Specialist attention in autistic units will enable autistic children to take their place in society.

It is astonishing that the education authorities list groups of children who are legally entitled to specialist education but that autistic children are not among them. To most education authorities, autistic children either do not exist or have to fit in to existing structures. This is a deplorable state of affairs. I hope that the necessary special units will be provided. At the moment there are only 23 units and about 100 are required. If the new Clause were accepted, all autistic children would benefit.

I turn to new Clause No. 16, which I hope will be accepted by the House. The subject of dyslexia is one of the most misunderstood disabilities in the realm of the disabled. The object of the Clause is to improve the provision for children who are suffering from dyslexia. There is some controversy about the term "dyslexia", and many learned treatises have been written about it. When I use the term, I mean children who suffer from special reading difficulties, although there is nothing wrong with their eyes or intelligence. Indeed, many of them have greater intelligence than normal children. Even though they have proper educational opportunities, they are unable to learn to read.

Some people call it word-blindness. Sometimes it is regarded as a minor medical disability. The educational, social and emotional effects can be quite catastrophic. The effect on a child who is unable to read, despite having an average intelligence, is predictable. Educational progress is completely blocked, and the scorn and ridicule of classmates can be a terrible burden, especially to a sensitive child. Once the spiral of fear, reaction, bad behaviour and truancy begins, there is no knowing where it will end. The whole of a child's school life can be transformed by a so-called mild disability into one of failure and misery.

Some educational psychologists refuse to admit that dyslexia exists. They say that children suffering from it form only part of a longer continuum of disability. It it now recognised by some, but not enough, people as a major disability.

I hope that the House will accept the new Clause. If it does, it will end once and for all the fallacy that dyslexia is not important. It will give statutory recognition to one of the most misunderstood disabilities and will lead to improved facilities and the early diagnosis and assessment of the problem. I put emphasis on early diagnosis and assessment because it is crucial to the solution of the problem from which these children are suffering. Above all, if accepted, the Clause will ensure that these difficulties are tackled early. Only by the early recognition of the problem can children be properly treated. I should like to think that by helping these children we would be rendering a considerable service.

I should like to quote a short passage from a book on dyslexia written by an American teacher who had dealt with dyslexic children: Looking back over the many years I taught, I always remember a handful of children I was never able to teach to read. I always felt badly about my failure and wondered what became of these youngsters. I only wish I had known then what I have now learned about dyslexia. I might have been able to help them. Acceptance of the new Clause would, I believe, help dyslexic children in Britain.

Mr. John Page

I support the two new Clauses, which have been ably and strikingly spoken to by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). The points which he made need no amplification because they were clearly and sympathetically set out.

I wish merely to refer to subsection (2) of the new Clauses: The arrangements made by a local education authority for the special educational treatment of children … shall, so far as is practicable, provide for the giving of such education in any school maintained or assisted by the local education authority There are in certain areas small independent schools with small classes and specialist teachers who can provide a service which may not be available under the State system.

I wish to emphasise that under the Clause a local authority is within its rights to pay the costs and make provision in independent schools for children who need special educational facilities which are not available through the local education authority's own schools. This provision is important and should be widely used in the small number of exceptional cases where it is necessary.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. Fred Evans

I should like to give an enthusiastic welcome to the new Clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). Those of us who have been engaged in education are only too well aware of the problem of autism and dyslexia. As I mentioned autism on Second Reading, I am very pleased that my hon. Friend, who has the deep compassion that comes from his own disability, has taken up those two types of disability.

I am sure that in the very near future dyslexia will be recognised for what it is and that all psychologists will pay due attention to it. I am absolutely sure that every educationist will regard the new Clause as a major advance, and I hope that the whole House will support my hon. Friend.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Again, I shall speak briefly because we are anxious to get the Third Reading today. The new Clause illustrates much of the feeling underlying the Bill. If we talk about privileged people and privileged areas, we are not talking about the autistic child, because 18 of the 23 units throughout the country located in the South-East. This rather reveals that unless it is made mandatory upon a local authority to make provision for this sort of education, it simply does not happen. The Clause will, I think, go a long way towards ensuring that local authorities recognise the problem and provide the facilities.

It so happens that my constituency has about the only autistic unit in the North-West, or even in the North. That is mainly because it has a dedicated teacher and a divisional health education officer who are devoted to this type of work. Units should not exist in isolation. Provision should be made for all handicapped people, no matter what their disability.

Those of us who have healthy children can feel sorry for those whose children unfortunately suffer from autism. A mentally handicapped child can at least respond, smile or pat one's hand, but not the autistic child. The terror of this disease is that one cannot make communication. One can give love, devotion or help, but one gets nothing back. It is not, however, an incurable situation. There have been a large number of circumstances in which education has been possible in a special sense for the autistic child. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister of State to insist that all local authorrities make adequate provision for this type of disease.

Mr. Alfred Morris

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) has made an excellent contribution to the Bill, but he has performed no more important service than to draw attention to the needs of very small groups of specially deprived children in our society.

My hon. Friend has been a powerful and superb advocate of those groups. He drew attention to the children who suffer the dual handicap of being at once blind and deaf. He has today initiated what, I feel, will be a major step forward for autistic children and children who suffer from chronic dyslexia or word blindness. These are tiny groups of un- fortunate children, but their problems are no less important for that.

Time was when, as a new and young graduate of the University of Oxford, I had to learn rapport with children of the Manchester Grammar School. They were very bright and, indeed, fortunate children. My hon. Friend has addressed himself to the problems of children who may be bright but who suffer a great handicap. To have rapport between a teacher and a child suffering from any one of these grievous complaints is extremely difficult.

I hope that the House as a whole will recognise the tremendous service that my hon. Friend has done in seeking to provide for these three small but extremely important groups of children in our society.

Mr. Fowler

I am very happy, on behalf of the Government to accept these new Clauses and I commend them to the House. We are all in the debt of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for drawing attention to the special needs of small, under-privileged groups. He has done a grand job on the Bill and, patently, he will not give up until the Bill has finally passed through all its stages in both Houses and every special need that can be catered for in such a Bill has been catered for.

I am advised that the first two subsections of each new Clause do not, in effect, add to the powers which the Secretary of State for Education and Science already has, since he already has general powers to require information from local education authorities. I am, however, sure that we would all agree that it is extremely valuable to draw attention to the needs of these special groups and to the need for information about them. That is why we welcome these two subsections.

To turn briefly to subsection (2) in each new Clause, perhaps I might say a word about autism and dyslexia. I am very glad that the Clauses are worded as they are, suggesting that the arrangements made by a local education authority for the special educational treatment of such children should, so far as is practicable, provide for the giving of such education in any school maintained or assisted by the local education authority. I say this for a specific reason.

Professional opinion is divided on the desirability of providing education in special units catering solely for autistic children. Many autistic children—or perhaps I should rephrase that and speak of children with autistic symptoms; there is divided opinion about the nature of autism. Some claim that there are many forms of autism. Very little is known about this handicap.

Many children with autistic symptoms appear to be suitably placed in special schools and units which offer special education to go with the stimulus of contact with other, more communicative, children.

Because there is still so little solid information about the most useful methods of educating autistic children, my right hon. Friend—the House will be glad to learn of this—has commissioned a research project to compare and evaluate educational treatment in three dissimilar units with the aim of shedding light on the type of education best suited to such children. I hope that this piece of research will produce valuable results to guide us in determining the right sort of education for these children.

Until the results are known, it would be a mistake to insist on all these children, without exception and from an early age, being educated in schools or units designed specifically for this one handicap. Many children of this type, isolated by difficulties of communication, may profit best from a type of education where they meet those not similarly handicapped. We therefore need a variety of provision because we must allow for the wide range of autism and difficulties of this nature, for the range of intensity of disability, and partly because it is only through such a variety of provision that we shall discover the most suitable means of educating these children.

I take it that the phrase "acute dyslexia" is here to be interpreted as referring to what are sometimes called "specific reading difficulties"; that is, those difficulties which are not self evidently related to a child's intellectual, sensory or emotional limitations, but, are thought of as having a specific and deep seated cause.

The trouble is that opinions still differ widely about the extent to which difficul- ties in reading can be considered specific in this way. But there is now a general view that there is small number of children whose reading difficulties are not the result of other disabilities, but who have specific difficulties which we refer to as "acute dyslexia".

What I have said about the education of autistic children applies, in part, to these children, but there is a point which one must make in regard to the education of this group. For the same reason that the difficulties that they experience in reading may not be paralleled by difficulties in other educational spheres, it is often important to ensure that their general education takes place in contact with the other children who are not suffering from this disability, while at the same time making provision for special education in reading for these children.

I therefore welcome the wording of the Clause. I admit that, at present, there is a shortage of facilities for teachers to give the sort of intensive help that these children may require. My hon. Friend has done a great service to the cause of the education of these children by bringing this matter to the attention of the House and ensuring that a provision is written into the Bill.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Ashley

I welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) and I appreciate the difficulties enumerated by the Minister.

Although I recognise the problems of special units and the need for association with other children, when authorities are dealing with the problems of dyslexic and autistic children they should appreciate that some children need treatment in special units and that those units should be provided even if the children may, to some extent, be isolated, since some of them cannot benefit from association with other children in school.

There are groups of children who need to associate with their fellow pupils. An intelligent assessment must, therefore, be made—it is a matter of judgment—and, in some cases, it may be better for the child to be with other pupils; for example, if it is not a chronic case or if the child is able to benefit in an ordinary school.

I wish to place on record my hope that a judgment will be made in every individual case and that these children will never be lumped together as a homogeneous group. They do not exist as a homogeneous group and an individual asessment is of crucial importance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

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