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Concern over 'dire' level of assistance for families of children with autism

By Lesley-Anne Henry

There has been widespread outrage after a High Court judge found a Northern Ireland health authority had breached its duty to help the families of children with autism.

The Western Health and Social Care Trust was slammed for not responding to more than 40 requests from different carers during a test case heard in Belfast yesterday.

Arlene Cassidy, chief executive of Autism NI, said the case highlighted the crisis currently facing thousands of families across the country.

“The situation is dire,” she said. “Yes, particularly in the west, but there are constants throughout all of the trusts.

“I am encouraged that the judge has taken such a deep interest and I would like to commend the judge and the Children’s Law Centre in bringing this to the attention of the public.”

According to the latest statistics, there are around 5,000 children suffering with autism in Northern Ireland and Autism NI claim the prevalence figures are rapidly rising.

“The facts speak for themselves,” added Ms Cassidy. “The Department of Health has an action plan for autism which was a three-year initiative with £2.8m attached to it. There were to have been new services implemented but the money seems to have been swallowed up in administration. We just heard, about a month ago, that the annual £750,000 has been cut to £250,000 — so it’s being continually eaten away and there is no money to implement anything.

“The Department of Education reviewed services in 2002 and the Western Health Trust, and the old Causeway Trust were seriously lagging behind. Three years ago the waiting time for a diagnosis in the Western Health Trust area was four years. So there is a legacy there.

“None of the trusts have funding to provide the services that are needed. The main issue is about a lack of prioritisation of autism and a lack of funding from central Government.”

Yesterday’s test case was taken by the Children’s Law Centre over the trust's failure to answer correspondence for a fresh assessment. It emerged in court that the 14-year-old patient’s parents had split and his mother later had a complete breakdown. Ms Cassidy added: “We are due to present a new study at the end of September on parental trauma and it will show that around 80% of mothers whose children have autism are on anti-depressants because of the stress. There is a pressure cooker there and parents have been lobbying the politicians big time out of sheer frustration. It is an equality issue but the Equality Commission and other bodies don’t see it. It’s only through court cases like this that bring the issue to the fore.

“The Department of Health needs to wake up to this tsunami that is running through our society.”

Meanwhile Dr Josephine Deehan, a GP and Omagh District councillor, said she was horrified by the details of the court case.

“I feel that it highlights the difficulties there have been, historically, in the diagnosis and treatment of autistic spectrum disorder,” she said. “Omagh District Council have been very proactive in requesting assistance for families of children with autistic spectrum disorder.

“In my professional capacity I am aware of the severe stress which these patients and families suffer.

“This highlights the need for a timely diagnosis and comprehensive case management in support of affected patients and families.

“It is a very, very significant diagnosis and one which requires a lot of resources in the care of these patients.

“But when these resources are paid, it does pay dividends.”

No one from the Western Health and Social Care was available for comment last night.

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