Revealed: The shocking delays faced by children referred for autism assessment in Suffolk
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Just one child in Suffolk referred for an autism assessment was seen within the mandatory 13 week period in 2019, shock new figures show – with waiting times nearly double what they should be.
And fresh questions have been raised over the council's plan to provide specialist school places for those children as no dedicated autism units are in the pipeline.
READ MORE: 10 schools announced for first wave of specialist unitsNHS data showed that last year there were 76 referrals for an autism assessment, and just one of those was seen within the expected 13 week timeframe. The average was 23 weeks, nearly double what parents should be expecting.
It emerged after Suffolk County Council data revealed a £10.6million annual cost for sending youngsters out of county.
It is understood the county lacks places for pupils with autism, with many of those sent out of county having autism needs. Despite unveiling a £45million plan to create more than 800 new special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) places, no plans for centres dedicated to those specifically with autism have emerged.
According to the council its communication and interaction hubs will be where those children are placed.
A council spokeswoman said: "At the moment demand exceeds available specialist education placements for children with communication and interactions needs in Suffolk.
"Unfortunately, this means there are currently a high number of young people with autism receiving support through the specialist independent sector."
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Councillor Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education added: "There is a considerable demand for specialist placements for children with Autism in Suffolk and we are doing all we can to address this situation.
"As part of this work we will be opening the county's first communication and interaction specialist units to support children and young people with autism.
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"The first unit will open in September 2020 with further units due to open from September 2021. Two new special schools for communication and interaction are also planned and will be located in Ipswich and Bungay."
According to Garry Joyce, deputy director of transformation of children's services at the county's clinical commissioning groups, plans are in the pipeline to put more staff in place and dedicate more time to carrying out autism assessments to clear the backlog.
A funding bid has been put in to the directors for that work, although it is not yet clear how much that bid is for.
He said: "It's always going to be a perpetual waiting list, so that's why we need the money to bring some extra staff in so we have the correct resources.
"Once we get to that stage [of the backlog being cleared] we expect that it will be managed."
Councillor Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the council's opposition Labour group, said: "We are one year on from a devastating report into Suffolk's SEND services but for many children and families, things have barely improved.
"The fact that just one autism referral was assessed within the 13 week target, and that the average wait time is nearly six months, is a damning indictment of the paucity of support for children and young people with autism. Things have been like this for a very long time yet little has changed.
"I am pleased to have been part of the team that put forward the proposals to establish 800 new specialist school places, but these will take five years to all come online and creating new places alone won't solve the multitude of problems in the system.
"Fundamental issues, like not being able to ensure a timely and effective referral and diagnosis process, have to start being addressed - the cost of not doing so is just too great."
The parent view
Parents and Carers Together (PACT) works with families who have children with SEND, as well as those needing mental health support.
Bec Jasper from PACT said: "Our parents felt that generally smaller class sizes, smaller units attached to mainstream schools wherever possible, properly trained staff, and environments appropriate to sensory needs - including reasonable adjustments in mainstreams to enable those with sensory needs for example to, wherever possible, remain there with peers - are needed.
"It is felt that often special schools are being run like mainstreams with a lack of therapeutic input.
"Parents would like a choice of the type of provision they feel would enable their child to best access education.
"Size of classes, types of provision such as forest school, life skills or animal therapy with local access to occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, sensory therapists, mental health trained staff, and therapeutic environments etc should ensure less travel to appointments and more wraparound care for the child.
"Additionally, so many of our parents trying to access mental health support for a child have lately been told that they cannot access mental health services if their child has an autism diagnosis. This is something we are looking into further as it should not be the case."