Parents of autistic children warn they are facing 'cliff edge'

Grainne Close, National director of Autism initiatives with Alison Lyttle at their office in south Belfast. picture Bill Smyth.

DESPERATE parents are warning that escalating numbers of autistic children are reaching adulthood without crucial support.

There has been a four-fold increase in children being diagnosed with autism in the last 15 years, with more than 300 diagnosed every year.

People with autism can find the world overwhelming and may have difficulty understanding and relating to other people.

Families told the Irish News they face a `cliff edge' when their child turns 18, when children's services support end without adequate transition - causing problematic behaviour to spiral.

The parents of one young man with Asperger Syndrome (a type of autism) are speaking out after their son endured four months in the high security Maghaberry Prison, despite a member of the jail's own mental health team telling them "he should not be there".

Former justice minister Claire Sugden said prisons "are not the place for people with mental health problems" and "immediate" changes must be brought into help people before they enter the system.

"Autism is something that is still widely misunderstood," she said.

"We were looking at initiatives through the department trying to take into account different conditions offenders have and if their condition is leading them to offend it does need to be taken into account.

"We were working with the judiciary around sentencing... and with Michelle O'Neill when she was health minister."

She said the executive's collapse had halted progress and direct rule threatens to see "services fall behind the rest of the UK".

Grainne Close, director of Autism Initiatives (AI), which provides bespoke services to help people live in the community, said "when the system works, it works well".

AI has more than 50 people in supported living across the north, some in shared accommodation and others in their own houses.

She wants parents to know help is available, although acknowledges accessing it can be a struggle.

"The Health and Social Care Board commissions local health trusts to create services for people with autism.

"They partner with us and the Housing Executive's Supporting People programme. We work together to help people with autism live independently in the community.

"Some are people who 20 years ago were living in a long stay hospital. Referrals come to us because they know we can work with people with challenging and very complex needs."

But, she suspects that their 50 clients are merely "the tip of the iceberg", given the numbers of children being diagnosed with autism annually.

Ms Close believes there are parents out there who are struggling in silence.

"Elderly parents and older parents feel it's their responsibility to care for their own child, even if they are now adults and their behaviour is difficult.

"They keep them at home out of pride or they don't know that there is another option."

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