Press Release

New analysis reveals autism assessment and support crisis with tens of thousands of children waiting months and years for help after demand rockets by over 300% since Covid

February 2, 2024
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Centre for Young Lives

New analysis reveals autism assessment and support crisis with tens of thousands of children waiting months and years for help after demand rockets by over 300% since Covid

A report published today (Friday 2nd February) by the Child of the North initiative - led by the N8 Research Partnership of Northern universities and others - and former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield’s new Centre for Young Lives think tank, reveals a crisis in children’s autism assessment, warning that thousands of autistic children and young people are waiting months - or even years - for health and education support.

[.download]Read the Report[.download]

With the number of children accessing autism services now at a record high, the report, “A country that works for all children and young people: An evidence-based plan for addressing the autism assessment and support crisis” shows how most parents are being left to navigate a complex support system for their autistic child that is hampered by processing delays and waiting lists.

The report sets out a number of key recommendations for tackling the assessment crisis, calling for a ‘needs-led’ approach instead of relying on a ‘diagnosis-led’ system, where early identification becomes the norm and faster effective support is offered without relying on a diagnosis. It argues that children and young people with autism and conditions such as ADHD can thrive in mainstream education if their needs are supported in a timely way. Early identification and support can mitigate the negative and costly effects on autistic children’s physical health.

It highlights how since Covid-19 there has been a 306% increase in the number of children waiting for an autism assessment. Just one in ten children are receiving an appointment within 13 weeks of being referred, while more than one in four parents have waited over three years to receive support for their child.

As one parent seeking an assessment for her child told the report’s authors, trying to receive an assessment was “an absolute nightmare … our systems in health and our systems in education don't link and can't talk, and we can't transfer things over, and things had to be logged in one place and not another.”

The report’s analysis reveals a system under unsustainable pressure.

The report warns that the failure to provide the right autism support can lead to poor long-term outcomes for autistic children, including an increased prevalence of connected conditions such as mental ill health and a greater risk of school exclusion or not attending school. Data from the Connected Bradford database included in the report reveals that children who had been referred but were still waiting for an assessment were at greatest risk of being excluded from secondary school. Autistic children who had a diagnosis were less likely to be excluded from school, compared to those awaiting an assessment, suggesting a diagnosis and subsequent support has a protective effect. With waiting times increasing, there is a growing risk to education outcomes, with evidence suggesting that many autistic children are ending up in expensive Alternative Provision.

The report also describes how a major barrier to existing systems is the perceived need for a medical diagnosis of autism before any child can receive support, with the perception among schools that this is a requirement, preventing some children from accessing support. Given the long waiting lists, many autistic children are not receiving the support they need because they do not have a formal diagnosis.

It makes three key recommendations to Government which have the potential the decrease the long-term costs associated with not acting early:

The report also argues that planning and resourcing for diverse needs should be baked into the school system, rather than seeing both as an optional extra. This could include relaxing individual school uniform policies to support autistic pupils with sensory issues who can’t tolerate wearing a uniform, removing the sounding of a bell between classes to generate a calmer atmosphere, and a consistently structured school day with calm transitions between lessons and lunch time.

The research highlights the SUCCESS (Supporting Understanding of Children’s Communication, Emotional and Social Skills) project trialed in 10 Bradford primary schools which deployed multi-disciplinary teams within the school gates to conduct autism assessments for children identified as being at risk of undiagnosed autism (and other neurodevelopmental disorders). The evidence showed that clinicians were able to combine their clinical observations with those of teachers, who observe the child working. The SUCCESS approach allowed more children to access autism services and thereby reduce the likelihood of missed appointments and the resultant costs. The evidence from the trial suggests this approach could provide major long-term savings and reduce waiting times for autism assessment and support.

The report highlights the Early Identification of Autism project in Nottinghamshire, aimed at identifying communication and interaction needs in 7–11-year-olds to reduce assessment waiting lists and promote early intervention. The project brought together health and education services to undertake assessments so that timely, appropriate support could be identified and delivered to children, families, and schools at a much earlier stage in a child’s educational journey. The evidence showed that training allowed school staff to gain a unique insight into the diagnostic process and improve knowledge about autism. In turn, this led to children’s needs being identified and tailored support offered at an earlier stage.

The report’s authors also asked students at Limpsfield Grange, a special school in Surrey, to reflect on their experiences before they joined the school. They described being made fun of, called “dumb” and “stupid”, and being left out of games, or being put in groups away from the rest of the class. One student recalled being kicked out of school after their parents told the school about their diagnosis. The students suggest teachers should be taught about autism, neurodiversity, and mental illness, and call for movement breaks if children are feeling stressed, counsellors in schools, and for schools to acknowledge that autistic children shouldn’t get into trouble for reacting in non-neurotypical ways.

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said:

“The number of autistic children seeking support is at a record high and the number waiting for an assessment has rocketed since Covid. The autism assessment crisis is leaving thousands of children without the support they need and parents having to battle their way through a nightmare process that can take years to resolve.

“The pressure and stress this is putting on families and children can have terrible and damaging consequences for mental health and for children’s education chances. Autistic children with a referral who are waiting for an assessment are at significantly greater risk of exclusion from school, with all the further risks that can bring. If waiting times continue to increase, so can the risk of increased exclusion and poorer educational outcomes for autistic children.

“The evidence shows the need to move to a system of support that responds to the needs of autistic children, rather than waiting for diagnosis before any help appears. The education sector and health services should be working together, sharing data and information, and building local partnerships that can transform the support autistic children receive.

“Without urgent reform, we cannot hope to improve the life chances of the next generation. As this report highlights, change is possible – and it is happening in some schools and local areas already. What is needed now is the determination from the Government and others to make it happen everywhere.”

Dr Camilla Kingdom, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

"We hear from families over and over again about how distressing the current systems are for autistic children - from the incredibly lengthy waits many have to endure awaiting diagnosis, through to a support system which is patchy at best.

“I commend this report which has been written with significant contributions from children and families with lived experience. I am convinced that we need to move from detailed descriptions of our failing system, to action - and this report provides the evidence base to do just that."

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Leeds, said:

“Autistic children and their families are being failed by systems that are not fit for purpose. This report provides hope with its evidence-based recommendations for how the system can be changed to build a better UK for children and young people. We now have a roadmap and we need to act at pace to ensure these recommendations are implemented.”


[.download]Read the Report[.download]

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