Help plea as child autism rises by 67% in five years
Cases of autism in children have soared by 67% across Northern Ireland over five years, according to an official government report.
A study by the Department of Health revealed that 5,458 school-age children – 2% of the total number of youngsters here – were diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome during 2013/14.
That compares with 3,278 – 1.2% of all children – in 2008-9.
The figures prompted experts to call for the urgent development of support schemes for parents with children diagnosed with the condition.
It is believed the rise is down to a combination of better awareness and greater diagnosis of autism, but the need for extra support remains.
The report, called Prevalence of Autism (including Asperger's Syndrome) in School-age Children in Northern Ireland 2014, also showed boys were almost five times more likely to be affected than girls.
It added that, "generally speaking", children living in deprived area were more likely to develop problems.
Nicola Booth, a consultant behavioural analyst with the charity Parents Education as Autism Therapists (PEAT), said the increase in the number of children with the condition was "not surprising".
"We are getting more and more families phoning us," she added. "At the minute, we have a waiting list, which has never happened before. There are about 22 parents on it."
Nicola, whose parent-led charity provides practical behavioural support to families, said the stress on carers was enormous.
"We have had parents functioning with maybe two hours' sleep go and do a full day's work then leave for appointments," she added.
"Many have had to go part-time (at work) because of the demands like speech and language (training) and occupational therapy – it can be very time-consuming.
"One parent said to me it was like a bereavement when they got the diagnosis. That is a common feeling."
National Autistic Society Northern Ireland co-director Shirelle Stewart said the study was a cause for alarm.
She added: "These figures point to an urgent need for the development of autism-specific services and support for children, adults and families whose lives are impacted by autism."
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects how a person relates to the world and others around them.
It can also hit crucial language and social skills, as well as making hard for the sufferer to understand other people's behaviour.
For details, visit www.peatni.org or www.autism.org.uk.