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:
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."