Explainer: What Did This Morning’s Regional Group Autism Bill Motion in the Dáil Mean?

Minister for State Anne-Rabbite thanks Regional Group for motion and argues that more time is needed to deploy Innovation Strategy, pushing the Autism Bill forward to October 2022.

This morning saw a extended debate over whether to progress the Autism Bill proposed through second stage. The Autism Bill was first passed in 2017 by the efforts of then Senator Dr. James Reilly. Despite some progress, most notably calls from Sinn Féin for an all-party working group, the bill eventually lapsed with the General Election of 2020 and the Dáil’s subsequent dissolution. The most recent development in this area was Minister of State for Disability Anne Rabbitte TD’s commitment to an Autism Innovation Strategy in April 2021.

This morning saw the Regional Group open by discussing the urgent needs for support among autistic children and their families. They stressed the immediate needs of the community. Repeating the sentiment from their statement yesterday, that autism must be seen as a human right’s issue as opposed to one of health, they outlined what needed urgent attention. In the context of early years support, many pointed out the long waiting lists, costs incurred by family’s and the elements of ‘Post-Code Lottery.’ Verona Murphy TD in particular remarked she would not support a strategy where supports and services are different depending on where an autistic person is located. They pointed to the already hard to access services which disappear when autistic people entered adulthood and cited continuing issues with community unemployment. They ended their time by observing that by not providing early diagnosis and supports, the state is ultimately creating more costs for itself.

Minister Rabbitte repeated her commitment to the Autism Innovation Strategy announced in April. The Minister promised the formation of the strategy’s working group before the end of the year and that she would personally chair it. Rabbitte stressed that the working group would actively include the lived experiences of autistic people and would address the four key pillars of health, housing, education and employment. She argued that the strategy would be ambitious and dynamic, addressing barriers and responding to new information learned about the needs of the autistic community. The Minister finally stated that the government did not oppose the Autism Bill, but proposed a timed delay until October 2022 to allow the relevant structures to be put in place. Acknowledging the frustration of this decision, she urged the Regional Group to judge her based on her actions up to this point.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman similarly supported the Autism Bill but argued time was needed to put the plan together and create the right areas of accountability. While acknowledging the unique barriers experienced by autistic people, he cautioned about the dangers of legislating for one disability and the implications this may have for the UNCRPD

This understandably prompted further debate. Sinn Féin members, while commending Minister Rabbitte for her work up to this point, repeated the need for immediate provision of services. Kathleen Funchion TD and Pauline Tully TD in particular, noted the need for language in the legislation to be amended to represent current understanding of autism. Several other parties remarked on the need for families to fight for Assessments of Needs and diagnosis for their children, let alone the right educational supports.

Dennis Naughton TD observed many parents are forced to borrow money to meet the costs for private educational assessment. Michael Healy-Rae TD  recalled a time when it was estimated that 1 in 5000 people were autistic and observed the condition is far more common than previously thought and that supports need to match this demand. A number of speakers stressed that autism is a lifelong condition and that more attention towards autistic adults was needed. Holly Cairns TD of the Social Democrats in particular argued that the legislation was already overdue in 2017 and cautioned against further delay. Gino Kenny TD of People Before Profit echoed this when addressing Rabbitte “I know it’s not going to be done overnight, Minister, but it needs to be done very very quickly.”

The decision to amend the motion to be carried over until October 2022 is certainly mixed news. While the Innovation Strategy working group should be given a chance to gather data on the practical ways the state can address the community’s needs, the urgent call for supports and services remains. One positive which has emerged from this morning’s debate is the clear commitment for All-Party support for this piece of legislation. AsIAm thanks the Regional Group for their diligence and attention to move the Autism Bill forward in the first significant action since before the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope that this commitment can be carried through in the formation of the working group and into October 2022 in the form of fit-for-purpose legislation informed by community voices.

 

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