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Funding Announcement for Autism Services

Published 3 March 2016

Following on from last month’s announcement from Health Minister Simon Hamilton of a £2million pledge towards Autism services, we take a look at the impact associated with the announcement.

In February 2015, the Department of Health reported that there had been a 67% increase in the number of children diagnosed with an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) across Northern Ireland. While this figure reflects children who have received diagnosis, the number of children who are still awaiting diagnosis continues to grow at an alarming rate. Recent figures indicate that there are currently 300 children across the province who have been waiting for more than 12 months for a diagnosis appointment, and in some cases up to 20 months within the Belfast Trust.

Not only does the waiting time for diagnosis fail to meet targets, it also severely impacts the well-being of the children who are being kept waiting. When a child has been formally diagnosed with an ASD, it then becomes the responsibility of the Education Board in that area to meet the needs of the child. Until a formal diagnosis is received many families find themselves essentially waiting in limbo.

Anne Marie Kelly, head of MKB Law’s Family Law department, has accumulated many years experience in assisting families whose children require special educational provisions. Anne Marie comments: “There is a shared opinion among professionals that early intervention is key, and therefore securing early diagnosis is essential to improve the developmental and educational outcome for the child.”

The announcement from the Health Minister comes in response to both meetings with Autism NI and to an online petition which garnered over 7,000 signatures from parents across Northern Ireland. The petition highlighted the delays being faced by both parents and children, stating that waiting times for diagnosis should be no longer than 12 weeks (3 months).

The pledge money will go towards creating up to 35 new posts in Autism diagnosis services across the five health trusts. In the Minister’s statement it was noted that these additional posts will go towards increasing the number of Professionals already working in Autism services. The statement further stated: “This new money will fund expanded teams in each Trust to improve assessment times, including clinical staff specifically trained in assessing Autism. In addition, these resources will be used to expand Autism specific support services, and improve access to wider services such as: Speech and Language Therapy, Community Paediatrics and Occupational Therapy.”

The news was welcomed by Autism NI and the many families across Northern Ireland who are directly affected by the diagnosis delays. Dr Arlene Cassidy from Autism NI called the investment “the greatest single investment in autism services ever”. The announcement further indicated that the £2 million would be recurrent funding starting from April 2016.

While the pledge marks the first major investment to Autism services since the 2011 Autism Act (Northern Ireland), many including Dr Arlene Cassidy and MKB’s Anne Marie Kelly, have expressed their concerns on the limitations of the pledge money. With investment money seemingly ear-marked for diagnosis services, concerns have been raised in regard to provisions for post-diagnosis services and provisions for school leavers aged 16+.

Dr Cassidy commented: “Autism NI will continuously lobby the government to find further funding required to support the ‘legacy’ families – the autistic young people and adults who require support in the community and into employment.”

In previous blog posts, Anne Marie Kelly has discussed the problems facing both parents and their children in securing provisions to meet their educational needs. Anne Marie states: “My experience of working with parents of children with Autism is that they are, in many cases, fighting a battle to attain even the most minimum intervention for the child. While the announcement of funding for diagnosis services will indeed help address this issue, I would urge Professionals to continue revisiting the parameters of responsibility between the Health Trust and Education Boards to ensure children with ASD receive only the best possible outcomes.”


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