Children with special educational needs are being denied access to the extra support they need.
That’s the central line of a motion brought to the Assembly by a Newry and Armagh MLA, who said that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children being diagnosed ASD over the past five years.
SDLP Assemblyman Dominic Bradley proposed the motion, expressing concern over waiting times for special educational needs assessments and the adverse effect it will have on the social and educational prospects of children with autism.
By the end of April 2015, of the 1449 children waiting, more than 900 had been waiting longer than the recommended 13 weeks.
Of those, 476 had been waiting more than 26 weeks and more than 78 children has been waiting more than a year to be assessed.
Speaking in the Assembly Mr Bradley said: “We are extremely concerned about the waiting times for SEN assessments. This motion calls on the Minister of Education and the Minster for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work collaboratively, however with no Health Minister in place, this will not be done.
“The backlog will only get worse when the department who is due to lead on development, implementation, monitoring and reporting has no Minister.
“In the last five years, the rate of autism has increased by 67% in school aged children, with one in 54 pupils attending school diagnosed with ASD. There is no doubt that, without quick, correct diagnosis, children with ASD and SEN will not get the support that they require in school or through the HSCBs.
“The Health Minister assured the house that his department was working to find new ways of reducing the impact of long waits for assessments. We are still waiting to find out what these new ways are. This is not being helped by the current political stunt of 10 minute ministers.”
SDLP Health Spokesperson Fearghal McKinney said: “Autism diagnosis forms an important component of the overall statementing process and how, when you’re faced with 1300 children in a queue for diagnosis, it’s important for this chamber to hear how the current system is failing children and their parents.
“Delays in diagnosis are causing real stress, hardship and worry to families as well as to the children themselves who are missing out on vitally important services and help.”
SDLP Education Spokesperson Sean Rogers said professionals and researchers agreed that early intervention and diagnosis was essential to improve the developmental and educational outcomes of the child with autism.
He added: “This issue cannot be tacked by either Health or Education alone and a joint approach will be necessary to drive waiting lists down and promote early intervention when educating and caring for a child with ASD.
“Furthermore, funding is a key issue to driving the autism strategy and broader SEN legislation.”
The full Motion read: “That this Assembly expresses concern over the appointment of waiting times for children for autism and Special Educational Needs assessments; notes that the Prevalence of Autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome) in School Age Children in Northern Ireland 2015 report, published in July 2015, shows that the estimated prevalence of autism has increased; recognises that delays in diagnosis are resulting in children with Special Educational Needs being denied access to the extra educational support they need; further notes the importance of early intervention for educational and social development for these children; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work collaboratively with the Minister of Education and his arm’s-length bodies to fully invest in, and streamline services to deal with the backlog.”
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