The number of people waiting for autism assessments in the Western Trust has increased by a staggering 574 per-cent in three years.
The figures released by Health Minister Michelle O’Neill showed 398 people on the waiting list in the Trust area as of September 30.
The vast majority – some 319 – were waiting beyond the 13-week target for obtaining an assessment.
It compares to just one person waiting over 13 weeks in the Western Trust on September 30, 2013, when there were a total of 59 names on the entire list.
Concern over the impact of the growing waiting lists on families was expressed last January, when the Western Trust admitted that demand was outstripping its capacity.
The annual escalation in numbers waiting showed no sign of slowing down in 2016, a trend repeated in the Northern and Belfast Trust areas.
West Tyrone SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan claimed many children were suffering as a result of the over-stretched autism services.
“I’ve had families, multiple families, contact me to say they’ve been told to wait up to 22 months for an autism assessment for their child,” he said.
“They wait six months and are still told waiting lists are 20 months. How can this be acceptable for some of the most vulnerable children in society?”
Of the 398 awaiting autism assessments in the Western Trust on September 30 2016, 319 were waiting more than 13 weeks. However, 102 were waiting more than 39 weeks.
By contrast, there were no patients waiting more than 13 weeks for an assessment in the Southern Trust area, and just two waiting over 13 weeks in the South Eastern Trust.
It’s understood that some desperate families have sought Southern Trust postcodes from family members in the hope of having their child assessed.
Daniel McCrossan questioned whether families were now part of a post code lottery system.
“Waiting lists in the Western Trust are almost ten times greater than the Southern Trust,” he said. “Will families need a post code in Newry, Armagh or Dungannon in order for their child to be seen?”
Responding to concern over the waiting lists and whether other Trusts would take their best practice lead from the multi-disciplinary autism team operating in the Southern Trust, Health Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed that a review of services across the North had taken place.
“The Health and Social Care Board has reviewed autism services in each Health and Social Care Trust and is currently working with Trust colleagues, those with lived experience of autism and other key stakeholders, to re-design the model for paediatric autism services.
“Examples of best practice locally, nationally and internationally have been used to inform the design of the new model.
“While the new model and associated implementation plan is being finalised, the HSC Trusts are working to reduce the waiting time to access autism services.
“The recruitment of new staff in each Trust utilising the additional investment made available this year will support these initiatives.”
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