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Thousands of children with autism still awaiting help

By Victoria O'Hara

More than 2,000 children are still waiting for vital autism assessments across health trusts in Northern Ireland, new figures have revealed.

The Belfast Trust has the highest number of children waiting, with 942 families on the list to see assessment specialists. In the Northern Trust there are 649 children still on the waiting list, and 368 in the Western Trust.

The numbers emerged following an Assembly question to the health minister, and showed that over 100 children in the Northern and Western Trust had been on the list for at least three months. A further breakdown of figures for the end of March show a postcode lottery of waiting times across each Trust.

Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts how a person relates to the world and others around them. It can affect language and social skills.

Without assessment, children cannot get care packages or the specialised education they need.

Campaigners have warned that despairing parents are being left in an "emotional limbo".

Families have been continually fighting for improvements to slash waiting times and lobbying politicians to invest in services to help struggling parents.

Former Health Minister Simon Hamilton announced a £2m cash injection, but numbers still remain high. A Department of Health spokeswoman admitted that demand for assessments substantially outstrips capacity:.

"The additional £2m investment... has been available to Trusts from April 1, 2016 and is currently being applied to address waiting list pressures. Work is also under way with the Health and Social Care Board and trusts to improve processes and remodel services. Therefore, the HSC Board intends to implement a new regional autism service model by next spring," she said.

"Currently in development, this aims to improve access to early intervention and over the next year reduce to a maximum of 13 weeks waiting lists to commence autism assessments."

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