National strategy to help people with autism ‘desperately needed’

James Reilly: Expects good support for bill.

James Reilly, the former health minister, says a national strategy to support people with autism and their families is “desperately needed”.

Last night, the senator tabled the Autism Spectrum Disorder Bill which seeks to address inconsistencies in autism services across the State.

The strategy proposed in the bill will set out how the needs of persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are to be addressed throughout their lives.

The private member’s bill was discussed by the Cabinet at its meeting on Tuesday and Mr Reilly, who expects to get good support for it, introduced it yesterday.

The initiative has been welcomed by AsIAm, which wants to educate the public about autism while acting as an advocate and empowering the autism community.

AsIAm chief executive Adam Harris, brother of Health Minister Simon Harris, welcomed the bill and said he looked forward to engaging with it.

Irish Autism Action also welcomed the proposed legislation, describing it as a real chance for the needs and rights of people with autism to be “cemented firmly” in legislation in Ireland.

Mr Reilly said he started a petition on change.org last Thursday asking people to support the bill and that more than 13,000 have already signed up.

“It is a bill that I think will receive wide support in the chamber [Seanad] and it is desperately needed,” he said.

“There is an inconsistency both in the services available and in the approach to diagnosis and treatment required.”

The incidence of autism in the 1960s was thought to be one in 5,000. However, the latest figures put the figure at one in 68.

Mr Reilly said children and adults with autism have tremendous potential. Even those who might not be high functioning can lead a far more independent life with early intervention and effective support.

The bill requires the health minister to publish the first strategy within two years of the passage of the legislation.

“I know people would like a lot more detail in the bill, but it is about ensuring that we have a strategy. The detail will be in the strategy, and it does point to the need for consultation with experts and parent groups,” said Mr Reilly.

He said he is happy to make any amendments to the bill that people want.

Mr Reilly said his son, Jamie, 29, is completing a PhD in stem cell research and autism at NUI Galway. He also earned a master’s in biotechnology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

“This was a little boy we were told was mentally handicapped, and his mother was advised to be of good cheer and not to worry.”

Mr Reilly said he tried to bring forward a similar bill to ensure an autism spectrum disorder strategy when he was health minister.

“It got bogged down, and I could not do it,” he said.

“I had opposition from the department and I had opposition politically.

“Now things are different with new politics and the new dynamic in the Dáil. It is a minority government, and that is why I have appealed online for support to lobby the Oireachtas, not just the Government because it is the Oireachtas that has the power to pass this bill.”

Mr Reilly said now that the economy has recovered, resources should be used to support those in society, particularly the most vulnerable.

“The measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable,” he said.

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