Almost 3,000 children across Northern Ireland are waiting to receive an autism assessment, figures from the Department of Health have revealed.
As of December 31, 2,996 children in Northern Ireland were waiting for an autism assessment by the various Health and Social Care Trusts here, according to the figures.
The Belfast health trust had 1,1017 children waiting for an autism assessment, while the Northern and Western trusts had 922 and 866 respectively.
The Southern trust had 132 children waiting, with the South Eastern Trust having 59.
Statistics from the Department of Health last year show that Northern Ireland has the highest autism prevalence rates in the UK, with one in 30 school age children here diagnosed with the condition.
The latest figures came to light after a question to Health Minister Robin Swann from Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Ms Bradshaw called on the health service here to do more in proactively prioritising the needs of children with autism.
“First of all, there are the waiting lists in general,” the South Belfast MLA said.
“Yet again, we have another frightening number of people awaiting vital assessments, all while being unsure what it will mean for them.
“This reinforces the need to get on with transformation so that we have more effective interventions earlier, which would likely include swifter autism assessment.
“Secondly, it has a significant impact on people’s lives well beyond the health service - for example, what choices should parents make concerning education, when they are unsure if their child has autism, or to what extent.
“Ultimately what is needed is an overall system of government which is more responsive to the needs of children with autism, rather than which waits for parents to have to knock every door down just to get an assessment.”
The rise in the number of children in Northern Ireland waiting for such an assessment was branded “beyond unacceptable” by the charity Autism NI.
Chief executive Kerry Boyd said: “The waiting times have continued to spike in Northern Ireland and this is clear from the figures.
“This inevitably causes parents great stress, as this time is often filled with worry and uncertainty. Many parents or carers are waiting up to two years to receive a diagnosis of autism for their child.
“This is in direct contradiction to the children’s care pathway which states that all children should be assessed within a 13-week period.
“Early intervention in autism is key to a child having the best outcomes in life.
“Autism NI therefore calls on the Department of Health to ensure that the Autism (NI) Act 2011 and associated Autism Strategy is implemented fully and the subsequent action plans are fulfilled as promised.”
The Department of Health was unable to provide a comment by the time of publication.