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£2m bid to reduce wait for an autism diagnosis is only a start, says critic

By Joanne Fleming

Published 15/02/2016

Health Minister Simon Hamilton
Health Minister Simon Hamilton

An extra £2m a year is to be invested in autism services in Northern Ireland, the Health Minister has revealed.

The money announced by Simon Hamilton will be used to reduce growing waiting lists and improve access to autism support services.

Mr Hamilton said that despite the dedication of many healthcare professionals, they were struggling to match pace with demand.

"Since 2010 the number of referrals for autism assessments has nearly doubled from 1,500 to 2,800 at the end of last year," he said.

"Many children and young people are waiting more than 13 weeks for an assessment. This is not acceptable and I am determined to get these waiting lists down.

"This money will fund much needed new capacity to ensure there is quicker access to diagnostic services and that, crucially, there is more support for young people and their families."

Mr Hamilton said the new money would fund expanded teams in each Trust to improve assessment times and include clinical staff specifically trained in assessing autism.

The resources will also be used to expand autism specific support services, with better access to wider services such as speech and language therapy, community paediatrics and occupational therapy.

"In tandem, I will continue to work with the board and the Trusts to improve our processes and remodel our services to further drive down waiting lists and improve access to high quality services," he added.

Today Alliance councillor Kellie Armstrong is bringing a petition with over 8,000 signatures to Stormont, arguing that both the health and education departments have failed to deliver the appropriate care for those with autism.

Ms Armstrong said she welcomes the Health Minister's funding announcement, but that more needs to be done to reduce waiting times.

"Whilst £2m going towards autism services can only be welcomed, the reality is it's only a start," she said. "There is nothing in the minister's announcement about creating a more joined-up approach to working with the Department of Education to enable earlier intervention and an appropriate multi-agency approach.

"Until we see the Autism Act enacted and waiting times dramatically reduced, then £2m is just a figure.

"Children with autism and other learning difficulties are still being consistently failed and no longer should we let it continue.

"To date, over 8,000 people have signed my petition. Those people realise their voices are finally being heard.

"Therefore the protest and handing over of the petition will still take place, as we need more commitments from the relevant ministers."

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