MORE families with autistic children are complaining about their local authorities, according to new figures from the special educational needs tribunal.
Appeals involving autism are the fastest-growing category and the third largest overall at 11 per cent of the tribunal's case load, up from 6 per cent last year.
The tribunal has an ever-increasing volume of appeals relating to the SEN statementing process, accepting 2,191 in the year ending August 1, 1998, compared to 2,051 the previous year.
But the number of hearings at which participants were represented by lawyers or supported by charities or parent advocate groups has declined sharply.
Tribunal spokeswoman Sue Collins suggested the increase in autism cases could in part be due to better identification and classification. The condition leaves children self-absorbed and poor social communicators.
"There are a lot of cases coming up now classified as autism which in earlier years I was seeing come through as moderate or severe learning difficulties, " she said.
Literacyspecific learning difficulties - mainly dyslexia - remain the single largest but declining source of tribunal appeals (35.7 per cent), followed by cases classified as otherunknown (12.9 per cent). Appeals over moderate and severe learning difficulties are also both down.
The majority of appeals - around half - continue to be against the contents of statements. But there has been a steady increase in the number of appeals against education authorities' refusal to assess children's needs (up three percentage points to 30.4 per cent) and a continuing decline in appeals against refusals to make a statement (down from 16 per cent two years ago to 12. 7 per cent in 199798).
At appeal hearings, legal representation was down from 15.8 to 8.9 per cent of cases, and voluntary group representation saw a big drop from 37.3 to 18. 7 per cent.
Those figures were queried by the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice, which offers a free representation service to parents. Overwhelmed by demand, it had to stop taking on new cases for two months last summer - but was involved in as many appeals as previously.
IPSEA's Katy Simmons said: "The demand (for representation) is greater than the voluntary sector appears able to meet. If you want to be a volunteer, you might not necessarily choose to be a tribunal representative because it can be unpleasant, distressing, and you can open yourself up to being sued."
Tribunal members have recently received training from the National Autistic Society. Its education adviser, Mike Collins, said: "Parents are much more articulate in seeking specialist places. Local authorities might be developing provision - and much of it is very high quality - but the bottom line is there often isn't enough of it."