Charity demands action after rise in kids with autism
The number of autistic children across Northern Ireland is increasing, new figures have revealed, leading to renewed calls for urgent action to help struggling families.
According to latest Government statistics, the estimated prevalence of autism and Asperger's syndrome has increased from 1.2% in 2008-2009 to 2.3% in 2015/16.
Former Health Minister Simon Hamilton previously announced a £2m cash injection, but numbers still remain high.
The figures came as it emerged more than 2,000 children were still waiting for vital autism assessments across health trusts, leading to charities branding help for autism the "Cinderella services in Northern Ireland".
Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.
The condition is a developmental disorder that impacts how a person relates to the world and others around them. It can affect language and social skills.
Without assessment, children cannot get care packages or the specialised education they need.
Nichola Booth, a consultant behavioural analyst with the charity Parents Education as Autism Therapists (PEAT), said the latest official figures were "not surprising".
"The increase in these figures is not surprising as the volume of calls that PEAT receives on a daily basis would support these findings," she added.
Ms Booth said although there was a funding boost announcement, there was frustration at the delay in action.
"The waiting lists are still there and are continuing to grow," she explained. "Without a diagnosis, access to services is restricted or denied."
Shirelle Stewart, director of the National Autistic Society NI said it was evident the number of cases are rising annually.
"What we are not seeing is a corresponding increase in funding and services in order to address the needs of people with autism and their families," she explained.
"What we must remember is that behind these figures are real children, adults and their families who are struggling to get the help and support they so desperately need."
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said in 2015/16 alone, demand for autism assessments increased by 17%.
"While these figures are extremely important and provide us with a clear picture of the pressures the current system is facing, I want to be clear that I am also focused on the people behind the statistics who are currently facing challenges in accessing vital services," she added.
"I will be expecting to see a return on the additional £2m recurrent investment announced earlier this year in terms of a sustained reduction in waiting times and improved services for children with autism and their families over the next year."