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Newsnight Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
Legal fight for rights
Pete, Vicky and Ollie Simpson
The Simpsons want the council to do more for their son
Legal fight for rights

Parents of autistic children are increasingly resorting to legal action to force local councils to provide specialist education programmes, an investigation by BBC Newsnight has revealed.

Local Education Authorities (LEAs) are legally responsible for supporting autistic children before and during their school years.

But as the numbers diagnosed with autism rises, LEAs are increasingly coming into conflict with parents who are demanding intensive early therapy.

Parents interviewed by the programme accused their councils of trying to put a lid on dramatically rising costs against the needs of their children, something which councils Newsnight contacted deny.

Assessment

Pete and Vicky Simpson, from Bristol, have a two and a half-year old son, Ollie, who suffers from autism spectrum disorders.

Bristol City Council said they offered the Simpsons access to an early intervention therapy programme run in conjunction with Bristol University.

Ollie Simpson
Ollie Simpson is making progress
But the family say that at just 7.5 hours per week, this is totally inadequate for Ollie's needs.

Qualified therapists are now giving Ollie more than 30 hours of contact time per week at a cost of 1200 per month - money they have borrowed on credit cards.

To get funding, the Simpsons need Bristol City Council to agree to make a Statutory Assessment of Ollie's needs.

The Council have refused to do this straight away, arguing they need to wait for more evidence about Ollie's problems and progress.

Debt

Meanwhile, the debts mount up for the Simpsons and the Council told Newsnight there will be no question of back-payment.

Newsnight has seen documents that prove the Council's own Educational Psychologist has recommended a formal assessment should be performed.

Autism figures
In 1960 One in 2000 children were diagnosed autistic
Today, one in 86 children are diagnosed autistic

And an independent NHS speech therapist has concluded that Ollie's home-based therapy is already paying dividends.

The Simpsons are now preparing a legal case against the Council for refusing to make a Statutory Assessment. The Council deny they are acting unfairly.

Acting director of Education Simon Jenkin told Newsnight that there were resources issues in funding 30 or more hours of home based therapy for Ollie, and doubted it was in the interests of the child.

He added that the council had offered much more than 7.5 hours per week on its own therapy programme - but accepted it is only available in term time.

Bristol City Council said they may assess Ollie in September, but the Simpsons feel they cannot wait and will continue to provide treatment themselves for as long as they can.

Tribunals

Experts contacted by Newsnight agreed that the current way of dealing with requests for funding is a mess.

The number for formal disputes between parents and local councils over the provision of educational therapy for autistic children has trebled over the past five years.

In 1995 autism cases accounted for just 3% of Special Needs Tribunals. Now the figure has risen to above 16%.

And parents in neighbouring education authorities are being treated completely differently.

If the Bristol-based Simpsons moved to Wiltshire or Bournemouth they would stand a far higher chance of getting funding for their son.

Bournemouth Council has adopted home-based, applied behavioural analysis programmes without dispute.

They have had no tribunals linked to autism - unlike most other authorities in England and Wales.

There are calls for a nationally consistent strategy to be set by the government and more funding into the effect of therapy techniques.

If you want some more advice on these issues you can call: the Autism Helpline on 0870 600 8585, or PACE on 020 7226 5525

You can watch Richard Watson's feature in full via the latest programme stream on this site

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Newsnight's Richard Watson
"Families can have real problems getting local authority help"
See also:

12 May 02 | Education
14 Mar 02 | Health
14 Feb 02 | Health
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