If children and young adults with autism and learning disabilities are to realise their full potential, we must know how to handle their specific needs

I first met Paula McGowan OBE in 2019 when I was a Minister in the Health and Social Care Department. Her story was an incredibly sad one: her son Oliver, who had developed mild hemiplegia, focal partial epilepsy, and been diagnosed with high functioning autism, had died in the care of doctors who had failed to tailor their treatment to his needs. His death had been entirely preventable.

Her story floored me. Listening to the shocking tale of how Oliver had been treated, it was immediately clear that the provision being made for autistic people and those with learning difficulties was falling woefully short of what was required. So when the Health and Social Care Act 2022 introduced a requirement that healthcare staff receive learning disability and autism training appropriate to their role, I knew that we had gone some way to righting this wrong.

Yet there is still so much more to be done. This was evidenced by the tens of thousands of signatures on recent e-petitions calling for autism and learning disability training for staff in education settings.

Research conducted by the National Autistic Society backs up their concern. They say that only 26% of the 200,000 autistic pupils in England feel happy in school, and that a massive 74% of parents and carers of autistic pupils feel that their school place does not meet their child’s needs.

The consequences of such shocking statistics are not difficult to glean. Our schooldays are among the most formative times in our lives. Quality of education hugely impacts future prospects, and where experiences go wrong children can suffer devastating long-term detriments such as serious mental and physical health issues.

A subsequent Engagement Survey run by the Commons Library laid bare the scale of the issue, which was powerful for the heart-breaking testimonies that were submitted.

Deborah, the mother of an autistic child, stated that “After nine years of experiencing the school system … she removed her son completely and started home education so that they could mend his mental health and school-caused trauma.”

Another, Liz, said that her son “was constantly chastised by staff, he was made to feel like an inconvenience. The impact this has had on his learning, confidence and growth has affected him greatly. Instead of turning into a happy and confident student, he’s become a withdrawn adult.”

A common thread between the testimonies, and central to Paula’s campaigning, is that parents and carers often feel side-lined by professionals who they feel do not understand the needs of their child as well as they do.

I therefore didn’t hesitate to host a debate in Westminster Hall to call for the extension of Paula’s mandatory training – named the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism – to education settings.

If children and young adults with autism and learning disabilities are to realise their full potential, teachers must know how to handle their specific needs in and out of the classroom. Currently there is a huge divide between teachers’ perspectives and children’s lived realities, with teachers saying they are confident supporting autistic pupils in the classroom and those same pupils saying teachers don’t understand autism. Teachers do an incredible job in this country, but it is evident that to get the most out of their students, they need extra support and training.

Oliver McGowan was a talented footballer who played for England Development football squads. He was a registered athlete and was ranked 3rd best in the country for track 200 metres. He was training to become a Paralympian. How many talented youngsters’ full potentials are not being realised because of a simple lack of understanding? When will all education professionals be given the tools to meet the needs of neurodivergent and children with learning disabilities? I am determined, for the sake of those children, that the answer comes soon.