In September 2015, together with several MEP colleagues, I signed the Written Declaration on Autism, approved which called upon Member States and the European Commission to adopt a common strategy. Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, European actions in the field have become obsolete.
The Coronavirus lockdowns have had a negative impact on the medical, psychological, and educational support provided to people on the autism spectrum. The restrictions imposed in most Member States led to increased isolation, difficulties in accessing home assistance, a lack of medical support from specialists, and in turn an increase in the psychological and emotional challenges that affect people with autism and their families.
In spite of this, very few countries offered special assistance to people on the autism spectrum. This issue has been largely ignored despite the fact that, according to the data available at European level, it is estimated that at least five million people are on the autism spectrum in the EU, while, according to the World Health Organization, one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder.
This is why I decided to question the Commission asking them to develop a strategic and integrated European approach to confront these new challenges, and to identify the means, and funds, to help persons on the autism spectrum and their families. The answer I received from Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides was rather disappointing.
While the Commission acknowledges the issue’s importance, it hasn’t given it any particular focus. Despite that, I must emphasise that the EU has been a constructive actor, supporting several studies, projects, and grants. I would like to highlight here the ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder - Empowering and Supporting Teachers’ project, which is financed through the Erasmus+ programme, designed to help teachers and improve access to education for children on the autism spectrum.
“Autism requires a consistent European approach and the positive precedent created by the Cancer Initiatives could provide the basis for an EU action for persons on the autism spectrum”
In its response to my question, the Commission acknowledges that it has difficulties approaching this issue at European level, but also to collect relevant and consistent data that could be used in developing a strategy that will have a positive impact. Moreover, autism-specific legislation differs across EU Member States and support capacity is also unequal across the continent.
Civil society organisations are advocating in many EU countries for better services, hoping for a more appropriate common European answer. Unfortunately, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the efforts have faced a severe pushback that is unfortunately likely to continue due to the economic consequences of the crisis. Needless to say, autism is a global issue, with around one percent of the world’s population diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
To mark the upcoming World Autism Awareness Day 2021, several countries have sponsored a joint statement supported by 151 UN member states, among which are 23 European countries. This resolution marks one of only a few official United Nations Days on a specific disability, but it has also been criticised by the main organisations in the field for not sufficiently covering the rights and needs of autistic people.
It is clear that autism requires a consistent European approach, and the positive precedent created by the Cancer initiatives could provide the basis for an EU action for persons on the autism spectrum.