Fewer councils met recommended standards of autism training for social workers last year, an official report has found.
The study by Public Health England asked local authorities to rate their progress in 2014-15 on 37 indicators of autism provision.
The proportion of local authorities where at least 75% of staff carrying out statutory care assessments had received specialist autism training dropped from 30% to 25% between 2013-14 and 14-15. Almost a fifth of councils (18%) offered assessors no specialist training on the condition.
Problems were also identified with basic autism awareness training, with less than a third (29%) of councils confident all health and social care staff in their area received this.
Statutory guidance not met
Both findings suggest many services were not meeting expectations under the statutory guidance on implementing the government’s autism strategy that applied at the time of the 2014-15 audit. This guidance said that basic autism awareness training should be made available to all staff working in health and social care, and that areas should provide or develop specialist training for staff in key roles, including community care assessors.
That guidance was updated in March 2015, with the training requirements strengthened to take account of the introduction of the Care Act 2014.
Regulations under the Care Act place a legal duty on councils to ensure all assessors have the “skills, knowledge and competence to carry out the assessment in question” and are “appropriately trained”.
Drawing on this, the 2015 statutory guidance on the autism strategy stated that councils should ensure that assessors have “demonstrable knowledge and skills” in using appropriate communication skills with autistic adults, and a good understanding of the presentation and impact of autism.
These requirements came into force in April 2015, suggesting councils will be expected to have a higher proportion of assessors trained in autism for next assessment of progress undertaken by Public Health England, covering 2015-16.
The latest Public Health England report also raises questions over the access to assessments for people with autism.
The proportion of councils where an autism diagnosis automatically triggered an offer of a care and support needs assessment dropped from 58% to 54% between 2013-14 and 2014-15. This is despite the original 2010 autism strategy and the 2014 update of the strategy, Think Autism, stating that diagnosis should lead to an assessment of need
Plans to improve support and training
A Department of Health report, charting progress against the Think Autism strategy and published alongside the Public Health England findings, outlined the government’s plans to improve autism care.
These included a commitment to work with the Health and Care Professions Council to determine the autism awareness training health and social care professionals should receive in their degrees. The DH has also produced a ‘manual for good social work practice’ in autism to support practitioners.
The report highlighted some areas of local good practice, with 45 councils telling researchers they had trained all frontline staff to communicate effectively with people with autism. Some councils had also set up specialist autism social work provision.
Improvements in diagnosis
Training was only one element covered in the wide-ranging report. Researchers also identified a “large improvement” on the number of local areas with diagnostic pathways in place for autism.
The average wait between referral and treatment was 13 weeks, slightly above the recommended 12 weeks. However, waiting times varied widely, from an average of seven weeks in London to an average of 29 weeks in the South West of England. The longest wait a person faced was 95 weeks.
Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said the findings suggested councils still weren’t “consistently living up to their statutory responsibilities” to support autistic adults.
“Particularly disappointing is the huge differences in the length of time people are waiting for a diagnosis…Although average waiting times may be less extreme, there is a very significant number of people waiting longer than the three months between referral and an assessment starting that is recommended in national guidance. No-one should ever have to wait this long, just to find out whether they are autistic and to have a chance to unlock essential support and services.
“Our charity will be monitoring closely the progress made by the government and in local areas to make sure they live up to their responsibilities. It’s time to end the postcode lottery that leaves too many adults without the support they need.”