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SOLIHULL: Row erupts over autism comments

SOLIHULL: Row erupts over autism comments

Photo from Solihull Council webcast

A row has erupted after a Solihull councillor questioned whether autism might be “over-diagnosed” and faced accusations that she was blaming mothers preoccupied with their phones for increasing rates.

“Ill-educated” comments by Cllr Angela Sandison at a meeting this week were swiftly condemned by a local group which supports families of SEND children, who said around 100 “upset and angry” parents had been in touch.

Their responses have apparently been sent in bulk to the council’s complaints team.

Cllr Sandison’s remarks were also challenged during the session by Lib Dem leader Laura McCarthy who had said: “Autism is not a failure of parenting.”

Although Cllr Sandison had denied this was what she was suggesting, replying: “I’m not saying it’s a failure of parenting, what I am saying is the cases can be reduced by early intervention.”

Cllr Michael Gough (Con, Silhill), who chaired the meeting and a few moments before stressed “autism is very real”, had at that point stepped in.

“Can we put a lid on this and draw a line under it? This is not a free-for-all. This is a public meeting.”

Council leader Ian Courts confirmed today the events at the council Civic Suite were being investigated.

The row erupted after Cllr Sandison (Con, St Alphege) had raised concerns about why the borough’s rates of autism were significantly higher than the levels regionally and nationally.

“Are we certain that this is not being over-diagnosed, that we’re not setting the level too low?”

She had gone on to cite research, released earlier this week, which claimed two thirds of autism cases among at-risk babies could be prevented by early interventions to help communicate with children.

“Can we put in some more early intervention like with parenting skills … so we don’t have so many cases arising and we don’t need to have so many places for children with autism.

“In a previous generation of children, they’d never even heard of autism and now we’ve got so many – I can’t believe there’s that many that need special schooling.”

She had gone on: “You see mothers all the time now … They’re on their phone and they’re not even looking at the baby and it’s so important to look at the baby and to look him in the eyes. You get a lot more like that don’t you?

“I’m sure if you can teach parents that this is a very important thing to do … maybe we can cut these cases down. Just a thought.”

The North Solihull Additional Needs Parent Support Group had said the comments had caused “outrage” and it had collated the many responses.
In a statement it had also levelled criticism at a senior Solihull Council officer, with several parents apparently concerned that he could be seen nodding behind Cllr Sandison during her comments.
A spokesman said: “The public outcry from the SEND community has been deafening in response to the ill-educated comments from Cllr Sandison and the explicit agreement of her opinions by the interim director Tim Browne.
“Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder not as a result of parental neglect. Tim and Cllr Sandison’s lack of understanding is resulting in a five year transformation plan based on media articles and a lack of evidence.
“How can parents and those professionals who are experienced in diagnosing this condition collaborate and work with those in power who are ignorant.
“We need professionals representing us who understand the inequalities and prejudice that our children face . Once again our community, our children, are voiceless.”
Although the group had praised the interventions of Cllrs Gough and McCarthy during Wednesday night’s debate.
Lib Dem and Green members of the board said afterwards the comments were “completely unacceptable” and “trivialise the challenges of living with autism.”
They echoed calls made from some parents that Cllr Sandison should be removed from the children, education and skills scrutiny board.
One woman said: “I’m shocked and feel personally attacked by these comments. I can assure you, autism has always been around and it was not caused by me looking at my phone rather than my baby.”
Yesterday Solihull Council issued a statement on behalf of Cllr Richard Holt, cabinet member for children, education and skills, who said: “Having heard from some fantastic parent/carers this morning, I understand there may have been some different messages taken away from the scrutiny meeting last night.

“I wanted to be clear that autism is very real and not a failure of parenting – with early intervention and support being critical to improving outcomes.”

Officers had suggested during the meeting that rates of autism in Solihull could be in part down to the previous speed of the assessment process, with people having reportedly been seen within 20 weeks compared with three to five years in other areas.

Cllr Courts, leader of Solihull Council and its ruling Conservative group, this morning described the remarks as “at best insensitive” and confirmed he had asked for the matter to be looked into as a priority.

“Our administration has a strong record of support for children’s services, our children and support for our wonderful young people,” he said.

“The proceedings of the scrutiny board are under review and an investigation I have requested is in hand.”

Cllr Sandison has been contacted for comment.

Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter


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