French government announces new five-year plan to transform autism services

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The French Government has announced an ambitious five-year plan to redress the country’s much criticised provision for people with autism (ASD) and neuro-developmental disorders.

The €344 million plan — Autisme: changeons la donne! — is the country’s fourth to promise significant changes to bring autism services into line with those of other major economies. With €53 million credits carried over from the third plan the total budget going forward is almost €400 million.

Launching the plan at the Paris Museum, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged that France was far too late in diagnosing children with autism with 45 per cent of diagnoses being made between the ages of six and 16. He promised swift action to improve early identification. He also promised to provide parents with an ‘early intervention package’ to relieve the financial burden prior to the child being issued with a MDPH (Maisons Départementales des Personnes Handicapées) card through which French citizens access disability allowances.

A national steering committee made up of a wide range of stakeholders drew up the latest plan. For the first time it included people with autism. It met seven times between September 2016 and March 2017 before launching a nine-month nation-wide consultation.

The final plan makes five key commitments:

  • To strengthen research and training.
  • To implement the early interventions prescribed by best practice recommendations.
  • To ensure effective schooling for children and young people.
  • To foster adult inclusion.
  • To support families.

France has previously been criticised by the United Nation for its failures in respect of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A February 2016 communique criticised it, among other things, for the slow implementation of inclusive education and the ‘widespread violation’ of the rights of children with autism.

On inclusion, it urged France to adopt a human-rights based approach to disability without delay; to recognise the right of all children to inclusive education; and to ensure that inclusive education is given priority over the placement of children in specialised institutions and in segregated classes.

It also recommended that France organise the collection of data on children with disabilities and develop an efficient system for early identification to facilitate the design of appropriate strategies and programmes for them; that it adopt measures to facilitate and ensure access to appropriate support; and that it train all teachers and education professionals on providing inclusive education and individual support, creating inclusive and accessible environments and giving due attention to the specific situation of each child.

Finally, it said it should ensure sufficient resource allocation for all children, including children with disabilities, to be supported with the most appropriate plan for responding to their needs and circumstances; and undertake awareness-raising campaigns to combat the stigmatisation of and prejudice against children with disabilities.

On autism it said France should take immediate measures to ensure that the rights of children with autism, especially their right to inclusive education, are respected; that the 2012 recommendations of the National Authority for Health are legally binding on professionals working with children with autism; and that only therapies and educational programmes that conform with the recommendations of the High Health Authority are authorised and reimbursed.

It added that children with autism should not subjected to forced institutionalisation or administrative placement and that parents should no longer be subjected to reprisals when refusing the institutionalisation of their children.

The new plan which seeks to address these criticisms was given a cool reception by Autism France, the country’s leading advocacy organisation. The association, which represents 9,000 families, criticised the plan’s lack of detail, described the £400 million budget as ‘derisory’ and singled out the ‘archaic beliefs’ of psychoanalysis in France for impeding progress. State auditors recently revealed that €7 billion a year is spent on autism but critics say much this bypasses education and is spent on medical provision.

The number of people with autism in France is estimated at 0.9 to 1.2 per cent. At a rate of 1 per cent, it’s estimated that approximately 7,500 babies are born each year with ASD.

On the basis of this same rate, the number of people with the condition is estimated at 700,000 people, comprising about 100,000 young people under 20 years of age and nearly 600,000 adults.

The population of people with ASD is part of a larger group of people with neuro-developmental disorders, which represent five per cent of the French population — about 35,000 births per year.

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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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