Government targets to have children to have an assessment and statement of special needs within 34 weeks could be at risk unless another £30m of funding is made available, according to evidence given to Department of Education officials.
Ricky Irwin was giving evidence to the Assembly Committee for Education in the wake of a scathing report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) which said that 85% of children wait more than the statutory 26 weeks for an assessment and statement.
Meta Auden, founder of Spectra Sensory Clothing, said parents are being forced to pay out hundreds.
“One of my customers has private health care but it does not cover the autism spectrum, so she is going for a diagnosis to a private clinic where the cost is nearly £400.00,” she said.
“There are not many who can afford this and considering that 85% of young adults with autism are unlikely to be in work compared to the rest of the young adult population the private route is not feasible.”
The evidence to the Assembly committee comes two weeks after health minister Robin Swann revealed that 603 have been waiting for more than a year for assessment.
The NIAO report said that the wait for children to have the assessment completed is nearly as bad, with an average of 45 weeks on the list.
New rules and a code of practice states that the limit for an Education Authority to complete the assessment and statement of special needs will be cut from 26 to 22 weeks.
“This means that the children are struggling at school, as no help without diagnosis,” said Meta. “The problem for many of our customers and in support groups, is the length of time before a diagnosis.
“Most parents know before a diagnosis that their child is on the spectrum, but also some for whom a diagnosis brings relief and understanding of their child’s behaviour.”
In his evidence to the committee for education Mr Irwin said that there is some worry that the extra monies needed may not be available.
“The financial environment next year will be extremely challenging,” he said. “We haven’t got any confirmation at this stage around the £30m pressure.”
Funding for Special Educational Needs covers support in special schools, children in mainstream with SEN and statements, SEN transport and support services for SEN through the Education Authority.
Meta Auden said that often it is not always clear what support is needed even once a child receives an assessment.
“There is not a one size fits all, each child will have different needs and the longer they go undiagnosed the more their education will suffer,” she explained. “I also feel that many do not understand the pressure parents are facing on a daily basis just getting their child out to school, only for the child not to receive any help when there.
“With no help, these children are being let down and their full potential not being realised.
The waiting lists are not going away, they will grow as more children will be diagnosed this year with autism than with cancer or Downs.”
Chairman of the Education Committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said that without funding there is no likelihood for change.
“The new regulations and code of practice can introduce new time limits and new deadlines but if the resources aren’t in place are they going to address the abject failure to assess and respond to special educational needs of children in a timely way?” he said.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office said that the Educational Authority procedures may not be “fit for purpose”. This came after an internal audit by the EA said that there were many failings. There is another internal investigation underway.
Meta Auden said that it has been an ongoing problem for so many years.
“I was lucky when my daughter was younger to have an assessment and a great classroom assistant,” she said. “However, too many parents are waiting too long and ultimately this causes problems and is, frankly, a disgrace.
“Of course we need the investigations to show the way to improve the situation, but we also need the funding and the will to make changes.”
At present one in five of Northern Ireland pupils has special educational needs, more than 67,000 pupils.
Find out more about Spectra Sensory’s range of sensory clothing and autism aids at spectrasensoryclothing.co.uk