NHS proposals to reduce autism diagnoses in south west London 'deeply concerning', warns charity

Demand for autism assessments is almost double the current capacity of 750 a year, with waiting times exceeding 10 months in some cases

There are around 120,000 young people with autism of school age in England
There are around 120,000 young people with autism of school age in England

Plans to reduce the number of children diagnosed with autism in south west London will leave vulnerable families unable to access “support they desperately need”, a charity has warned.

The proposals to restrict diagnosis of the neurological disorder to the most severe cases are being discussed to ease pressure on services and long waiting times in five areas.

Notes from a board meeting of the mental health trust for patients in Kingston, Merton, Richmond Wandsworth and Sutton state current levels of demand for autism assessments are almost double the current capacity of 750 a year.

And in some cases, waiting times have exceeded 10 months.

“Despite service remodelling and productivity improvements, demand for assessments has outstripped the capacity of the service,” said the minutes from the South West London and St George’s Mental Health Trust.

The Trust said the alliance of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in the five areas had asked it to review who is eligible for autism services and restrict diagnosis to children with an additional mental health condition, such as depression of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“The effect of reviewing and revising the criteria must be to reduce the number of children and young people who are able to access a full diagnostic assessment from the trust,” it said.

The National Autistic Society (NAS) has said it is “deeply concerned” about the plans, while the five CCGs have emphasised no decision has yet been made on whether they will be carried out.

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Sarah Lambert, the charity’s head of policy, said if the proposals do go ahead, “this will leave many local children without access to a diagnosis and unable to access the specialist support they desperately need, which will threaten their long-term prospects and put a greater strain on many already vulnerable families.”

“We believe this goes against CCGs' legal duty to make sure children in their area can access a diagnosis service,” she said.

”An autism diagnosis can be life changing. It can explain years of feeling different and help unlock crucial advice and support. A failure to get that support at the right time can have significant consequences – to school, home life and later on in employment.

“And the longer someone lives without the right support, the higher – and more expensive – their needs can become.”

Headteachers have said the proposals will increase pressures on schools as access to medical support for pupils with autism is “already too limited”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES head teachers “will feel huge frustration if the professional diagnosis of children’s autism is further restricted”.

The five CCGs told the BBC they “want to be clear that nothing has been decided by the CCGs or changed at this time and no change will happen in the next 12 months."

”Any potential changes to the service would require detailed engagement with stakeholders. The CCGs are fully committed to talking to local people before reaching any conclusions on the way forward.”

At the board meeting, the groups warned that the services were receiving around 25 referrals a week, or 1300 a year.

In November 2016, around £634,000 was provided to the trusts to reduce a waiting list backlog of 527 cases, but they understand that no similar additional funding will be made available next year.

It is estimated that one in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, with around 120,000 young people with autism of school age in England, according to the NAS.

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