Drop in number of children diagnosed with autism 'due to clinic closures during the pandemic'
A DRAMATIC drop in the number of children diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland has been recorded due to the closure of NHS clinics during the pandemic.
Official figures from the Department of Health show 1,193 children under the age of 18 were given a diagnosis
between the first lockdown last spring and March this year - less than half the total (2562) on the same period the previous year.
A charity chief warned last night the development was "deeply concerning" as it would create a further backlog.
In a special report last month, The Irish News revealed almost 5,000 children were on waiting lists resulting in many "desperate" parents paying up to £1,400 for private autism assessments.
It emerged that all five of the north's five health trusts are currently accepting private referrals - sparking fears of a two-tier system opening up as those with a diagnosis can access vital support for their child much faster.
The report led to Stormont health committee chair Colm Gildernew calling an Assembly motion this week to discuss the crisis.
He received cross-party backing to introduce a longer-term autism strategy, developed in partnership with parents, carers and those with the developmental condition.
"I am really pleased the motion received this support. The current delays which are forcing parents to go private for their child are totally unacceptable," Mr Gildernew said.
"I think it's also disappointing that the Department of Health has not been able to say how many private assessments have been accepted by trusts. If you don't know the extent of the problem, how do you know the extent of the solution required?"
A charity which provides support to families and autistic children said waiting lists were "overwhelming" with delays of more than two years in the Belfast trust alone for an initial assessment. Health guidelines state this should be done within 13 weeks.
Kerry Boyd, who heads up Autism NI, added that their helpline is inundated with calls from anxious parents affected but the situation had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
And she said the massively reduced diagnoses over lockdown will impact further on delays.
"It is often left to charities such as ourselves to pick up the pieces when parents and autistic adults are left in limbo waiting on a diagnosis," she said.
"This has caused many parents to gain a private diagnosis for their child in order to gain those vital post diagnosis supports. As 37 per cent of the autism community come from the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland, the rise in those paying for private diagnosis and being able to access support services quicker, is inevitably causing health inequalities which I feel is completely unacceptable.
"Whilst I understand why there has been less diagnoses taking place during the pandemic, I am deeply concerned at how this backlog is going to be rectified. I would call on Minister Swann to invest properly in the current assessment process and to adhere to the 13-week time periods laid out by Health and Social Care Board. Failure to do so will delay so many families and adults getting the vital supports they need."