The Members were reminded that the Council, at its meeting on 4th May, had passed the following motion, which had been proposed by Councillor McAteer and seconded by Councillor Magennis:
“Autism can cause significant social, communication and behavioural difficulties. The number of school age children with autism has soared in recent years. A total of 2,562 children were diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum last year across the north of Ireland. Five years previously the figure was 1,472. Children from social and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have autism - with boys three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
However, in Belfast thousands of children with suspected autism are waiting up to two years to get a diagnosis from the Belfast Trust. Early diagnosis and intervention is key to the future of these children and parents are distressed that valuable time is being lost while their children remain on waiting lists.
Many parents have had no option but to pay for private assessments which cost circa £1,400. All 5 of the norths health trusts now accept private referrals and this is leading to concerns about a two-tier health system that will see children from disadvantaged backgrounds left further down the waiting lists.
This Council asserts that, whilst the pandemic has affected autism services, all children with autism deserve to have timely assessments and the vital support they need at the earliest possible stage in their development. This Council will write to the Minister for Health to ask him to take all steps necessary to immediately tackle the unacceptable waiting lists for diagnosis of autism in children and to provide the necessary supports and interventions for their development.
Furthermore, the Council also commits to doing everything it can to ensure that we play our role in providing safe, appropriate and inclusive services and facilities for children with autism”.
The Senior Democratic Services Officer reported that a response to the motion had been received from Mr. Robin Swann MLA, Minister of Health.
The Minister had stated that he was acutely aware of the extensive waiting lists for autism assessments and the challenging circumstances which this presented for children, their families and carers. He recognised that this could have an impact upon their emotional health and wellbeing and on their personal development and education and acknowledged that this was unacceptable.
He had pointed out that he had publicly expressed concern that, in light of these waiting lists, families had felt the need to seek private assessment. Whilst this was a personal decision for some families, it was a prohibitive solution for many and he did not want systems and services where families felt that they must take this route. However, this was not a situation which was unique to autism assessment and there was much work to be done to improve waiting lists to access services across Northern Ireland generally.
The Minister had explained that he had, in recent months, taken a number of steps to address the need for early intervention and greater support, in response to the challenges being experienced by individuals and families who had an autism diagnosis, or who may be waiting for an assessment. On 8th March, he had published a cross-Departmental Autism - Interim Strategy, which had set out the key priorities to be addressed in 2021 and 2022, with a focus on early intervention and improving pathways of care. The interim strategy would be supported by a range of outcome-based actions across Government departments and the health and social care sector and aligned to the Programme for Government.
As part of this interim Strategy, the Minister was committed to listening to those who matter, particularly autistic people, their families and carers. In support of this, the Department of Health had established an Autism Forum, comprised of people with lived experience, as well as representatives from community and voluntary sector organisations who represented them. The Forum would be tasked with informing and co-producing a longer-term autism strategy and work on this would commence later this year.
However, improving support for autistic people and those waiting for an assessment was, he had pointed out, a collective responsibility for everyone involved.
The Minister had gone on to state that he was aware that, in each Trust area, multi-agency autism forums worked in partnership to enhance understanding of autism within communities and wider society, to enable social inclusion for all. He was also aware that Mid and East Antrim Council and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council had both been working closely with representatives from autism services within their Trust areas to create autism-friendly services within their boroughs. He understood that the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust had invited the Council to participate in its multi-agency autism forum and encouraged the Council to avail of this opportunity to examine how, through partnership working, services and support could be improved for all.
The Members of the Committee agreed to recommend that, in accordance with the Council decision of 4th May, the Chief Executive exercise her delegated authority to note the response.