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MLAs letting down autistic children, claim parents

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 10/11/2015

Petition: Fearghal McKinney
Petition: Fearghal McKinney

Thousands of people have signed a petition calling for better investment in struggling autism services which are "letting down" children and families across Northern Ireland.

Currently there are more than 1,300 children waiting to be tested for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and facing further delays for a diagnosis.

There are also delays in Special Educational Needs (SEN) assessments. The target is 13 weeks but at the end of April more than 900 of the 1,449 children on the waiting list were facing delays longer than that.

Of those, 476 had been waiting more than 26 weeks and more than 78 children had been waiting more than a year to be assessed.

A petition of 2,300 signatures was presented to the Assembly yesterday amid warnings that delays in treatment and appointments are "wreaking havoc on many families".

Rates of children being diagnosed have quadrupled since 2002 and a 2015 report released by the Department of Health revealed a 67% increase in school age children in Northern Ireland diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.

Shirelle Stewart, co-director of National Autistic Society Northern Ireland (NASNI), told the Belfast Telegraph the problem is a lack of resources invested into each Health Trust to meet demand.

"The difficulty is there needs to be more money in terms of assessment and diagnosis but also in terms of support afterwards.

"It is quite distressing to know there is a possibility your child has autism but then having to wait months, and in some cases a year, to get an assessment and diagnosis."

SDLP health spokesman, Fearghal McKinney, who presented the petition to the Assembly, said: "Many (families) are being forced to send their children to mainstream schools which do not have the specialised staff or facilities to cater for their educational and developmental needs. That is why, when this petition was launched, so many people signed it."

He said he hopes Health Minister Simon Hamilton will take "heed" of the petition.

More than 300 children in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with autism every year.

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