Autism diagnosis services in Northern Ireland are to receive a £2 million injection of funds, Health Minister Simon Hamilton MLA has confirmed.
The money will be used to create 35 new posts across the 5 health trust areas in Northern Ireland in an effort to cut the waiting lists for autism diagnosis. More than 2,800 individuals are waiting on a diagnosis and Hamilton said that this is "unacceptable".
This commitment came as petitions were presented to Hamilton and Education Minister John O’Dowd by Kieran McCarthy MLA calling for better care for children with autism.
“The increasing number of children with autism who are being forced to wait 20 months and longer for assessment and statements, and the further delay in specialist care and educational support, is pretty scandalous,” said McCarthy in the Chamber. “It is simply not good enough. The last thing that a parent needs after a child's diagnosis is to have to spend time running around departments looking for help. I appeal to both Ministers to act immediately and help all children with autism; indeed, both children and adults with autism.”
McCarthy added that progress in services since the Autism Act 2011 has been “very slow”, which has given rise to “frustration, anxiety and, sometimes, total breakdown.
“Our petition is begging for swift enactment of the legislation, the autism strategy and, indeed, the action plan. All children with autism must be treated as equal citizens and must have equal access to rights and opportunities, which have to be protected and enforced.
“Over 8,271 people have signed this petition. I pay tribute to all the parents and friends who have faced lengthy delays and waits. Their expectation in signing this petition has to be realised, and the Assembly, which is their Assembly, must deliver now. I acknowledge that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill is going through Stormont at present, and I also acknowledge the positive nature of the health board, the Public Health Agency and the early support team in each trust, but action speaks louder than words.
“In conclusion, the 130% increase in calls for help to the Autism Northern Ireland helpline indicates a huge problem for us all. It is no wonder that parents are crying out for help and guidance. Let all Ministers hear that cry for help, play their part and end the nightmare for children with [autism] and their parents now.”
Dr Arlene Cassidy MBE, CEO of Autism NI, welcomed the increase in funding. Speaking on BBC Good Morning Ulster, she said: "Parents have to wait over two years in some areas. We did a survey and about 70% of families were waiting over a year. The wording of the statement indicates this is recurrent money. So this is the greatest single investment in autism services ever."
Dr Cassidy added that more needs to be done to improve adult services: "Autism NI and the All Party Group on Autism will continuously lobby the government to find further funding required to support the 'legacy' families - the autistic young people and adults who require support in the community and into employment."