Autistic Scots face threat to benefits

THOUSANDS of Scots with autism will be forced to undergo personal assessments that could deprive them of vital cash payments under plans to reform the benefits system.

The UK government aims to replace the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) as part of a crackdown on fraud. But campaigning group the National Autism Society Scotland (NAS) fears the changes will have a huge impact on around 34,000 Scots aged 16-64 with some form of autism who want to live independently.

The concern centres on the planned shift from the DLA’s document-based assessment – including medical and social care reports – to face-to-face evaluation, which will be repeated despite the condition, which affects communications and social skills, being lifelong and incurable.

NAS says autism is extremely difficult to gauge through such face-to-face assessments.

Anna Nicholson, NAS Policy and Campaigns Officer, said the DLA system, which can lead to payments of up to £125 a week, was working for people with autism: “The DLA is often the only benefit that lots of people with autism – particularly those with Asperger and high-functioning autism – can get, because they often don’t qualify for social care funding from their local authority and benefits like that.”

Nicholson said the flexibility of DLA suited the complex, varied nature of autism, paying for the diverse needs of sufferers, such as travel training, a support worker to teach social skills or for special clothing for various sensitivities.

The NAS said a trial run of the scheme, carried out by the government last year involving 60 autism sufferers, highlighted severe shortcomings. Many of the assessed said little attention was paid to their communication abilities or the nature of their condition.

Jane Hook’s daughter Rachel, 25, receives the higher rate of DLA and has severe autism, making her uncommunicative and challenging in the wrong environment. She is also wary of small dogs and children. Rachel, a talented artist, lives in a flat with a carer in Alloa where she is able to use a special Art Opportunities centre, for people with autism to develop their creative skills.

Hook fears the new assessment could jeopardise this. She said: “The DLA allows Rachel extra money to live on. Everything costs more for her, even haircuts cost more because of sensory issues. Shoes cost more because she has very narrow feet – something I only discovered after she’d broken her toe-nails and damaged her feet, because she doesn’t complain about pain –and the special shoes are really expensive. The DLA is a lifesaver for us.”

Laura Alexander’s son Kyle, who is nearly 16, has autism and learning disabilities and she is now seeking DLA. “We’re at the stage where he needs this support. He has a lot of sensory issues, changes in lighting, bright light can throw him. He’s sensitive to noise and is quite scared of dogs and small children, so he does get startled in places if he doesn’t have his family around him.” She said the PIP assessment would be a challenge for Kyle, who is non-verbal – that is, has difficulty speaking – as in the past even sitting in waiting rooms has proved difficult.

Kyle is at a school for children with autism, but his mother is now looking to a future place for him at a college or work experience. She said: “The DLA is important because it will give him the opportunities to do things and contribute. He definitely thrives on feeling useful and being busy, because idle time for people with autism is real down time. They can get very stressed and anxious.”

Dr Robert Moffat, national director of NAS Scotland warned the new assessment for PIP would make a difficult situation worse. He added:“We know the government is under pressure to cut costs, however they risk creating a false economy, as the loss of crucial benefits leaves people struggling and needing greater levels of support in the longer term.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said PIP would “better recognise the needs of people with severe mental health conditions and learning disabilities”. She added: “Most individuals will have a face-to-face consultation as part of their claim. This will provide an opportunity to explain how their impairment affects their everyday lives, rather than trying to self-assess through an over-complicated application form.”