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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Balfour (Local Democracy Reporter)

Calls for inter-departmental strategy to tackle “unacceptable” autism assessment wait times in NI

Autism blocks

An inter-departmental strategy is needed to tackle Northern Ireland’s “unacceptable” autism assessment wait times, Derry City and Strabane District Council members have said.

A motion by SDLP councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr, at a Full Council Meeting on Wednesday, April 24, proposed writing to the Minister for Health, Robin Swann, Minister for Education, Paul Givan, and Minister for Finance, Caoimhe Archibald, to “urgently develop and present a business case” with clear reduction targets for assessment wait times.

Additionally, the council will seek collaboration from all Northern Ireland councils to support the business case and action plan.

Councillor Seenoi-Barr’s proposal added:

“This council acknowledges the unacceptable waiting times for autism assessments in the North of Ireland, causing significant hardship and developmental delays.

“The council recognises that early intervention is critical for developing key skills in children with autism, yet the backlog hinders timely support, impacting individual potential and straining educational and healthcare services.”

Councillor Seenoi-Barr told members that over 11,000 children in Northern Ireland were on the paediatric Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis and assessment waiting list at the start of this year, with the longest waits standing at a “remarkable” four-and-a-half years.

“Over 3,000 adults were also waiting for an assessment,” Councillor Barr added. “With 62 percent waiting longer than a year. In the Western Trust alone, 2,238 adults and children are waiting for assessment.

“The mental health toll on families is profound and, given how important early intervention is, these waits are unsustainable and threatening the opportunities of so many people across the North.”

DUP Alderman Julie Middelton said wait times were “simply unacceptable”, and it was “heart breaking” that families were resorting to costly private assessments.

Alderman Middleton added: “The Department of Health has spoken publicly about the cross-departmental autism strategy for 2023-2028, an action plan for its implementation, and a new standardised pathway for referrals and assessments.

“We must see the Health Minister take decisive steps when it comes to reviewing and implementing action, as this would greatly improve the chances of early intervention, access to services, family support, and confidence for the autistic person.”

Councillor Barr concluded: “As a mother of a son with autism, I know first hand the challenges families are facing without an assessment.

“I had to fight for my son for over four years to get services, so I hope that the Ministers will recognise the urgency of taking action on this issue.”


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