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‘Avalanche’ of demand for autism services has surpassed NHS capacity

According to a health think tank, the NHS is struggling to cope with a huge surge in demand for autism assessments and ADHD treatments in England.  

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends people with suspected autism be diagnosed within three months of referral, but new research from the Nuffield Trust, which was published by NHS Digital, shows that this target is far from being met.

ai generated, young boy, childhood

The think tank reported that over 170,000 people were on waiting lists from December 2023, which is up from 117,020 a year earlier and more than five times the 32,220 recorded in December 2019.

In addition, experts discovered that 147,070 patients had been waiting at least 13 weeks in December. This is six times the 24,250 that were waiting in December 2019.

Thea Stein, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said: ‘The extraordinary, unpredicted and unprecedented rise in demand for autism assessments and ADHD treatments have completely overtaken the NHS’s capacity to meet them.

‘It is frankly impossible to imagine how the system can grow fast enough to fulfil this demand.

‘We shouldn’t underestimate what this means for children in particular: many schools expect an assessment and formal diagnosis to access support – and children and their families suffer whilst they wait.’

According to the charity Child Autism, the spike in the number of people wanting autism assessment and ADHD treatments could be due to the suspension of some services during the pandemic, causing a backlog.

Dr James Cusack, chief executive of the charity Autistica, said: ‘It has been evident for some time that services need to adapt to the knowledge that there are more neurodivergent people than we used to think.’

Against this backdrop, the National Autistic Society have recorded that there are more than one in 100 people on the autism spectrum and around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. These figures, alongside the thousands that are wanting an assessment, showcase the need for more support.

Image: Mimzy

More on this topic:

Autism-friendly kids’ clothes at Tesco 

Autism research doesn’t prioritise what autistic people want – new study 

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