The detail of the Government's £12billion welfare cuts is expected to be revealed in the Emergency Budget on Wednesday. As Chief Executive of the UK's leading autism charity, I've heard from many people on the spectrum who are understandably anxious about the serious impact the changes may have on their lives.
Autism is a complex and often 'hidden' disability that affects around 700,000 people in the UK (that's more than 1 in 100) and often makes life more expensive. Many of them are among the country's most vulnerable citizens and rely on disability and other benefits to get support for the most basic of human needs, like washing or dressing.
Just 15% of people on the autism spectrum are in full-time paid employment and more than two thirds rely on their families for financial support. Many parents tell us that they have to give up work to help support their autistic son or daughter. Disability benefits - in the form of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) - are a lifeline for these families. They rely on them to cover both their day to day bills (ESA) and the additional costs that having autism can bring (PIP). Some young people, often those with high support needs, are equally reliant on housing benefit, which enables them to leave home to live in supported accommodation and gain independence.
People tell us they use their benefits to pay for food, clothes and support to help them wash, cook or to travel safely. So losing any of this money could be devastating. One parent told us that cuts to her daughter's benefits would mean she'd have to give up her independence entirely, leading to a "return of the depression and suicidal ideation". As well as the devastating impact for her and her family, it would ultimately result in additional cost to the taxpayer due to more costly crisis intervention.
While the Government has indicated that they intend to protect some disability benefits, they have also said that they will introduce a real term cut to all working age unemployment benefit, which will include those who receive ESA because they are judged to be unable to work. Housing benefit for those under 25 could also be restricted. Let's be clear: if this happens, people who can't work will be left with far less money to pay for the basics we all require to subsist. Something will have to give, whether it's heating, food, clothing or another necessity.
David Cameron has spoken of his belief in a 'compassionate nation' - one that protects the most vulnerable. If his Government is serious about this, they need to make sure that they protect all disability benefits and housing benefit for younger disabled people. Only then will people on the autism spectrum receive the support they need to live independent and fulfilling lives.