Autism diagnosis delays


May 31, 2013

Children with autism in Western Australia are waiting up to two years to be diagnosed under the public health system, according to an autism diagnostician.

Families that cannot afford to use private services must wait to gain access to state testing.

Secretary of the Western Australian Autism Diagnosticians’ Forum, Wendy Marshall, said that to be tested for autism in the public sector children under six years of age often had to wait several months.

The forum is a group of clinicians involved in diagnosing autism that meets every three months.

Speech pathologist Ms Marshall said that children aged between seven and 17 could wait for up to two years for a diagnostic test.

The test involves assessment by a team which typically includes a paediatrician, psychologist and a speech pathologist.

Ms Marshall said that, ideally, children should be diagnosed at two years of age.

“There is a lot of research to show that specialist autism early intervention services can make a great and positive impact on children’s lives,” she said.

“If there are delays in accessing the intervention it can take children a lot longer to unlearn some of the behaviours they may be engaging in that are affecting their learning.”

She said delays in autism diagnosis severely affected the families involved.

“A child with autism can have a number of difficulties across the social, communication and behavioural areas,” Ms Marshall said.

“Often families may be at a crisis point by the time they get an assessment done.”

Mrs Hill and Jameson, 2.

Autism Association of Western Australia employee Melissa Hill had to choose between public and private diagnosis when she suspected her son Jameson had autism.

“The [public] wait lists were just too long,” said Mrs Hill who is a mother of two.

“It was just easier and quicker to get him a [private] diagnosis so he could get into therapy.

“If we had gone the public route we would still probably be waiting for an autism assessment.”

Mrs Hill said that going down the private path had not been easy, as she spent almost $2000 on Jameson’s diagnosis.

“It was a lot of money out of my pocket,” she said.

“We are building a house.

“We have two children, loans, credit cards and everything else normal families have.”

A spokesperson from WA Health’s Child and Adolescent Health Service said the service closely monitored children who were waiting for an assessment.

“Assessments for Autism Spectrum Disorders are prioritised to younger children and those with high clinical needs,” said the spokesperson who did not want to be publicly identified.

The spokesperson said the department had recently started a partnership with the Disability Services Commission which would mean more assessments were made available for school-aged children.

Ms Marshall said the delays in public sector testing were largely due to a lack of qualified staff.

“If there was more [government] funding to employ people that could do the assessments, the more children they would be able to see, and then the shorter the waiting times,” she said.

Once a child is diagnosed with autism the family has access to State and Federal funding generally until the child is seven.

“Until an official diagnosis is received, [the family] is not able to access any government support,” Ms Marshall said.

Photography: Tessa Maybery

You can also check out Tessa’s work in the Western Independent newspaper, available from this week at news stands around Curtin University.

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