I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
“Dáil Éireann resolves that the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill 2017 [Seanad] be deemed to be read a second time this day twelve months to allow time for development and implementation of a national Autism Innovation Strategy, in line with commitments under the Programme for Government.”
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate on issues of support for persons with autism and their families. It is not the first time that I have debated autism in the House. In the previous Government we also had many debates on this issue.
Having previously met autism groups, organisations, families and people with autism, I note at the outset that I know that language is important.
I have met people who prefer to say "a person with autism" while others have told me they identify as an autistic person. I will use both terms during my remarks to try to be inclusive of this difference. Providing adequate support to persons with autism and responding to the challenges and barriers they face is a personal priority of mine and, I know, of many colleagues participating in this debate. This Bill has been resurrected since 2017. I absolutely welcome the fact that Deputy Canney and his group have shone a light on this. I would love to have seen the Bill go through during the term of the last Dáil, when there was real support and appetite for it.
The development of a national autism strategy is a firm commitment in the programme for Government. Earlier this year, at AslAm’s online event to mark World Autism Day, I announced my intention to establish a working group to develop an autism innovation strategy with the aim of launching it in early 2022. In budget 2022, the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and I secured €100,000 for the design of an autism innovation strategy and for raising awareness around it. I thank the Minister. While I am not fully transferred into his Department as of yet, I welcome his work and co-operation within the Department in ensuring that I had funding for this strategy, to which I committed in 2021, in order that it could start working in full in 2022. The working group to develop, implement and monitor the autism innovation strategy will be established before the end of the year and I will personally chair that group. In addition to the participation of representatives from Departments and agencies to ensure that we take a whole-of-government approach, a public and open call inviting expressions of interest to participate in this group will be announced shortly.
Engagement and consultation with autistic people is key and they will be very much part of the strategy's development. It cannot just be neurotypicals drafting the strategy. In line with our commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, it is critical that the strategy be co-designed by, and informed by the lived experiences of people with autism, their families and their representatives. The aim of the working group will be to identity innovations that can be achieved over the course of 12 to 18 months and which can make a real impact in reducing the challenges autistic people face and to implement measures to make Ireland a more autism-friendly country. There are four pillars within that, namely, health, housing, education and employment. Each of the Deputies opposite me raised those issues in their contributions. While ambitious, these targets will focus on delivering tangible solutions to the challenges, needs and experiences of people with autism in specific areas. I have already outlined those key pillars. It also will be important for the strategy to investigate goals that could have benefits for the wider neurodiverse population. This will be the basic framework of the strategy and I look forward to chairing the working group as we collectively identify the areas to focus on.
I note that Senator Carrigy is calling for the establishment of a dedicated Oireachtas committee to create a space for regular conversation on the lived experience of people with autism, which I think is a worthwhile suggestion. I note that Deputy Canney is also requesting this. I am fully supportive of the creation of such a committee.
Our commitment to responding to issues faced by autistic people is clear and firm. As I have outlined, we are progressing plans to develop an ambitious, agile and dynamic strategy which will have as its immediate focus the need for real and tangible solutions to the challenges, needs and experiences of people with autism. We can achieve more timely action and results through and agile, flexible and responsive policy and action approach - which I believe is what Deputy Berry was speaking about - such as can be seen in the proposed autism innovation strategy than we could through a static approach characterised by the rigidity of primary legislation. It is for this reason that the Government does not oppose the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill 2017 but instead proposes a timed amendment to delay Second Stage consideration by one year in order to let the autism innovation strategy take shape and begin its work. That will give Deputy Canney and the Regional Group a period of time to judge my actions and the actions of the Government in respect of what I have said about the autism innovation strategy under those four pillars.
There is low-hanging fruit that has been ignored for many years by various Departments. They have not really engaged with the needs of people with autism and their families, which are most precious, but have kept the door closed. I want to push that door open in respect of housing, education, health and employment. The Ministers who are in place and the Department will support me and allow me to show where is that low-hanging fruit, which our constituents regularly tell us about. Delaying Second Stage by 12 months will give Deputy Canney’s group an opportunity to judge our actions.
At present, we have two national policy frameworks that address and respond to issues that affect all persons with disabilities including those with autism. These strategies are the national disability inclusion strategy, the steering group of which I chair, and the comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities. These strategies, by design, are monitored and implemented in tandem with robust stakeholder engagement, these stakeholders including persons with disability and disabled persons organisations. The autism innovation strategy will complement and reinforce both of these national strategies and, crucially, will also align with the development and implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities implementation plan.
In any proposed legislative programme, we need to recognise potential knock-on consequences. Our approach to date, under the provisions of the Disability Act 2005 and the Equal Status Acts, has been to respond to disabilities in a holistic manner. These Acts look at the common challenges faced by persons with disabilities and allow space for specific and bespoke challenges and barriers to be identified and addressed at a policy level. This has provided the right balance to date. If an autism strategy were introduced by statute, this House would run a serious risk of being seen to create a hierarchy of disabilities in which some are deserving of specific statutory supports and recognition and some are not. That sends a dangerous and disheartening message to persons with disabilities at a time when we are working under the UNCRPD framework to build the self-advocacy capacity of persons with disabilities and to realise universal rights under the UNCRPD.
A further unintended consequence could be created whereby legislative supports for certain types of disabilities or impairments result in priority being given, in a resourcing or budgetary context, to some disability supports that have specific legislative support over others that do not.
I gave real thought to the Bill introduced by former Senator, Dr. James Reilly. There is no denying that. I tried to find workarounds to allow me to step along the legislative process. That is where the autism innovation strategy came from. I knew I would receive similar pushback to that which the then Senator received, which is why I have come forward the autism strategy. It will allow me to work with various Departments, to pick the low-hanging fruit, to gain the inclusive support of all Members of the Oireachtas and, most importantly, to demonstrate to the families that we actually are listening and that we can deliver. That is where I am coming from with the delivery of the autism innovation strategy. I now have funding behind me to support my programme of works over the coming months. I plan to work very hard on this.
Plans to develop and implement the autism innovation strategy are already under way and it is for this reason, to give these plans time to work and to ensure that we continue to legislate for persons with disabilities in an equal and holistic manner, that the Government will not oppose the Private Member's Bill today but will instead propose a timed amendment to reconsider the Second Stage of the Bill in October 2022, when the initial working of the innovation strategy can be considered. The Deputies can then judge me on my actions.