Social workers will receive new standards on working with autistic children and their families, as part of the government’s revised autism strategy, published last week.
The capability statement, due by May 2022, will be in line with a statement for practice with autistic adults, published in 2019, which is designed to help practitioners work in a relationship- and strengths-based way while challenging other services on how they work with autistic people.
In addition, the strategy pledged that social workers going through the national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS) will be assessed on their knowledge of practice with autistic children through the addition of assessment materials on this topic.
‘Unnecessary child protection focus’
The extension of the existing capabilities statement, covering adults, to practice with autistic children and families, was among the recommendations of a study by the chief social workers for adults and children, published in February.
The paper, focused on social work with young autistic adults and their families, found that some families were unnecessarily being pulled into child protection processes. It linked this to a tendency to use social work assessments to determine parenting capacity, rather than identify family support needs.
In the cases reviewed, there was not enough social work support when families were coping with very challenging behaviour; had this been provided, it may have prevented the family breakdown that ensued.
Positive practice included social workers enabling young adults and their families to challenge decisions to keep them in inpatient care. The study concluded that this was based on practitioners forging close relationships with young people and their families.
Capabilities statement for social work with autistic adults: key points
The statement, published in 2019, said social workers should:
- Understand the distinct oppression and discrimination experienced by autistic adults.
- Promote self-advocacy as a starting point of their work with autistic adults and develop their professional skills to advocate effectively on behalf of autistic adults.
- Ensure that they minimise any anxiety that may be caused by their professional status and their home visits, including through writing ahead to explain their role and purpose.
- Understand people’s preferred methods of communication, including how unaddressed sensory needs can impact on interaction and retention of information.
- Understand causes and indicators of health inequalities in autistic adults,
and how they apply to ethnic minority groups, who face particular forms of discrimination in accessing health and social care services.
- Enhance their skills at assessing, intervening, and reviewing the safety and suitability of all care and accommodation arrangements for autistic adults in family and institutional settings.
- Take time to understand the impact of autism upon an individual’s parenting and any necessary adjustments.
The chief social workers’ study also recommended that the refreshed autism strategy acknowledge the value of social workers’ knowledge and skills in working with autistic people.
It said social workers should be identified as the lead professionals for enabling choice, autonomy and personalised support for young autistic people.
This was not directly picked up by the strategy, which only said that social workers “play an important role in identifying the support autistic people need throughout their lives”.
The strategy also does not reference the study’s call for local authorities to appoint specialist social workers to co-ordinate support for autistic people, along the lines of the named social worker role for adults with learning disabilities previously piloted by government.
The plan is the third iteration of national autism strategy and, for the first time, covers children and young people as well as adults. Though it runs from 2021-26, funding is only provided for the first year, with much of the £74.88m allocated focused on preventing admissions to hospital, speeding up discharges and enabling autistic people to be supported effectively in the community.
Reducing inpatient provision
This is designed to help the government meet its commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to reduce the number of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in inpatient provision to less than half of 2015 levels by 2023-24, taking account of population growth.
Specific measures in the autism strategy include:
- £25 million to improve the capacity of 7-day specialist multidisciplinary learning disability services and crisis support. These teams are designed to help people with learning disabilities and autistic people with a mental health condition access mainstream services, provide them with specialist therapeutic support and respond to crises.
- £15m to provide children with complex needs with key workers, to help them navigate services, another commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan, which says these should initially be prioritised for children who are inpatients or at risk of admission.
Autism research charity Autistica pointed out that much of the funding allocated was already in NHS budgets and the key to the strategy’s success was the allocation of resources for the subsequent four years through the 2021 government spending review, taking place in the autumn.
‘Serious investment needed’
“The initial implementation plan is welcome, but it is a one-year plan for a five-year strategy,” said a spokesperson. “Serious investments in years two and three of the strategy will be required if the government is to truly “level up” its commitment to autistic people.”
Caroline Stevens, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, made a similar point about the need for ongoing funding beyond 2022, adding: ”The true success of the strategy will depend on the government investing in autistic people each year, as well as the prime minister honouring his promise to fix the social care crisis. If this happens, this strategy could be a significant step forward in creating a society that really works for autistic children, adults and their families.”