An autism charity has accused a Government minister of reinforcing false perceptions that people with anxiety misuse the benefits system.
Charity Ambitious about Autism made the criticism of George Freeman MP. It followed Freeman suggesting that people who suffered from anxiety were not “really disabled”.
Freeman is Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk. He is also head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, a body of policymakers in 10 Downing Street.
Freeman argued it was “bizarre” to pay disability benefits to those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”. He was speaking in a BBC interview when he made the comment.
He has since apologised.
Studies show a high proportion of people with autism also suffer from other psychiatric disorders, such as chronic feelings of anxiousness.
Research by Kings College London has shown a high incidence of anxiety in children with autism. In an August 2015 study, more than half (66.5 per cent) of a sample of 101 children with autism had generalised anxiety disorder. The study, Co-occurring Psychiatric Disorders in Preschool and Elementary School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, is here.
Freeman was defending plans to prevent the extension of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to cover those with psychological problems.
Elizabeth Archer, campaigns and policy director at Ambitious about Autism, said people with autism can find anxiety so debilitating it affects their entire lives.
What it’s really like
Archer said: “Charities like Ambitious about Autism work hard to educate people about what it’s really like to have autism.
“George Freeman’s comments, in this instance, are unhelpful because they serve to belittle the impact that anxiety can have on people with autism’s lives.
“In particular, their ability to travel (which is what PIP’s mobility element is there to support) and in that they reinforce people’s false perception that people with high anxiety or autism are misusing the welfare system.”
Two tribunal decisions have ruled the PIP payment should cover those with psychological problems.
Freeman tweeted that he “hugely” regretted it if his “comment about the need to prioritise the most ‘serious disabilities’ inadvertently caused any offence which was not intended”.
The Government says expanding the payment criteria would cost an extra £3.7bn by 2022.