4,000 sign petition demanding action on autism services in Northern Ireland
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition within 24 hours demanding that "failing" autism services be improved in Northern Ireland.
Angry and frustrated parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have said they now plan to take their protest to politicians at Stormont and present them with the petition.
It comes after it emerged more than 2,000 children in Northern Ireland are waiting for an autism diagnosis - sometimes for more than two years - leaving desperate families calling for urgent action to reform the service.
The petition - which calls for urgent action from both the Minister of Health Simon Hamilton and Education Minister John O'Dowd - has attracted thousands of signatures in just one day and says that children with ASD are "being failed by the health and education system in Northern Ireland".
Stressed parents facing a long wait for a vital assessment have described the current system as a "shambles". In Belfast there is a waiting time of up to 94 weeks, while in the Northern Trust, families face a wait of up to 65 weeks.
In the Southern Trust, meanwhile, there is an average 12-week wait.
Emma Manton spoke to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week about how her son and family had been left in limbo until he received a vital assessment.
She was told that her six-year-old, Thomas, would finally receive a school observation but it could be a year before he is fully assessed by the autism assessment team.
"At present we are waiting to find out when the Health Minister and possibly also the Education Minister will be in Stormont to present our petition so that it has the most effect; the proposed date is February 16 but that's pending confirmation at the moment," she said.
"The reason the group has formed and started the petition is off the back of the recent outcry over waiting times for assessment but also because it's coming to light that even after assessment it's still a wait - and a battle - for everything that's needed from diagnosis onwards.
"People are frustrated and struggling.
"We hope to gain the attention of local government and get some answers as to why our children are being failed."
Annemarie Smyth from Belfast, who is one of the thousands who signed the petition, said change is needed now.
"These children struggle with anxiety, behaviour issues and low self-esteem due to unawareness and ignorance of their conditions. Our children are being failed and changes need to be made now," she said.
A Health and Social Care Board spokeswoman said that a regional review of the development and delivery of autism services was being carried out.
The petition can be viewed here.