Belfast Telegraph

Autism kids ‘face life of poverty if they don’t get help’

By Victoria O'Hara

Thousands of children with autism in Northern Ireland will have a "bleak outlook" if they fail to get vital help early enough, an expert has claimed.

A new report found that delays in referrals and diagnosis means children here are not being reached early enough by specialists, and warns that those children and their families face a higher risk of poverty.

The report's author, Professor Karola Dillenburger of Queen's School of Education, is calling on Stormont to improve the support and services available to people with autism and their families,

According to Department of Health figures, just over two per cent of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland have autism.

However, the report - Helping The Most Vulnerable Out Of The Poverty Trap And Reducing Inequality - suggests the actual figure may be higher, with adult autism rates unknown.

Other key findings show:

  • Unemployment in families directly affected by autism is up to 20% higher than in other families. Many parents give up work to care for their children.
  • Children with autism miss school 8-13 days per year more than other children, while 20% are bullied, 20% are frequently excluded (for example, from certain activities or being asked to stay at home when there are school trips).
  • The cost of bringing up a child with autism is estimated to be six times greater than for other children.
  • Early intervention based on applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is recognised internationally as best practice and can enhance the quality of life of people with autism and save up to £1m across their lifetime.

But Prof Dillenburger says early, intensive ABA-based interventions are not available here in the statutory sector.

Nearly 300 children with suspected autism are waiting more than 12 months for an appointment. Last month Health Minister Simon Hamilton pledged an extra £2m, hailed as "the biggest ever single investment in autism services in Northern Ireland".

Prof Dillenburger, director for the Centre for Behaviour Analysis at Queen's, said: "The key to rebalancing the scales lies in early diagnosis and early intensive behavioural intervention for children with autism, and improved training for those who work in education and health services."

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