Leaders: Case for an inquiry into autism figures

WHAT is the explanation for the apparent astonishing surge in the numbers of children in Scottish schools with conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyper­activity disorder (ADHD) and learning difficulties?

According to recently released figures, almost 120,000 Scottish children are now said to suffer and to require extra classroom help. The figure has shot up from fewer than 29,000 in 2002 – a rise that begs searching questions as to why the figures have exploded in such a dramatic manner.

Are there genetic or environmental factors that might help account for such a rise? Are the figures the result of changes in definition or statistical method? And if the figures are borne out by subsequent investigation, what are the implications for school budgets and staffing? Scottish schools would need to recruit those with experience in remedial teaching.

The initial reaction among many may be scepticism as to the provenance and robustness of the statistics. For an older generation of teachers, the explosive rise in the numbers of children with these conditions may be due in part to an increase in the propensity to assert such classification as an explanation for “difficult” behaviour. For others, they may point to an admission of failure on the part of teachers to handle the range of child behaviours as once they did.

Officials believe the huge increase is attributable to greater public and professional awareness, improved diagnosis and wider diagnostic criteria. The primary reason is thought to be better recording in schools. Charities have immediately challenged this, arguing that these factors alone cannot explain the rise in children listed with additional needs. They are calling it, rather melodramatically, “an unprecedented calamity in child health”.

Autism concerns abnormalities of brain development and behaviour which emerge before a child is three years old. It is characterised by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted interests and stereotyped behaviour. Understanding of causation is far from complete. Some researchers suspect the condition does not have a single cause, but is instead a complex disorder with a set of core aspects that have distinct causes. Autism, once rare, is now more common than all other serious childhood conditions combined. One schoolchild in 77 in Scotland has an autism diagnosis, while the number of children with speech and language disorder has also increased sharply.

Whether the figures are the result of better record-keeping or a more disturbing rise in the underlying incidence of autism, the case for an independent and thorough inquiry is now compelling.

Once this is undertaken and its results studied and discussed, schools will then have to consider the consequences and step up extra classroom support and additional teacher staffing accordingly.

Faith, hope and clarity

IT HAS long been understood by third-sector organisations that their charitable status should not be used for party political purposes. This would be an abuse of the benefits conferred by being an officially recognised charity with the tax concessions enjoyed as a result.

This much is clear. But contributions to debate on the independence referendum are now seen to present a similar problem, even though First Minister Alex Salmond has specifically encouraged civic Scotland to get involved and make their voices heard. Draft guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator sounds a warning on what charities can say on the independence issue. But whether it provides guidance or obfuscation is moot. The document runs to seven pages, complete with a 21-point “table of information” and warns that supporting a Yes or a No vote may go beyond the scope of some charities.

Little wonder charities may find this a constraint on their entitlement to raise questions of concern specific to their organisations. These can range from legislative changes in their field, to funding concerns. Martin Sime, chief executive of third-sector umbrella body the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, said the guidance, while well intentioned, was likely to result in more confusion than it set out to dispel. The danger is many organisations will now feel inhibited by some aspect of this new guidance and unable to express themselves on issues central to their charitable work as clearly as they would like.

Scotland’s third sector should not be put at a disadvantage in this important debate as a result of fussy and confusing guidance by the Charity Commissioner.