Outcry over changes to child autism referrals

PARENTS and carers say a shock change to criteria for autism diagnoses could cost lives.

Children must now be in “crisis” before they can be referred for diagnosis in the Bristol region after healthcare  provider Sirona changed the eligibility for assessment from March 1. This followed a 350 per cent waiting list increase over two years.

Campaigners say the change was introduced without warning and they will challenge it in court. They have launched a group called Assess for Autism and a crowdfunding appeal, which raised £3,000 in a week.  https://tinyurl.com/yn7u85yb \

Under the six-point criteria, children will only be referred if they have “severe and enduring” mental health issues, such as being a high risk to themselves or others, are involved with youth offending, have very low levels of communication, are in care or on a child protection plan, or if their education or family is breaking down.

Even those who are referred face a two-year wait to be seen in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG).

Sirona and the Integrated Care Board (ICB), which formally approved the new policy, insist it is necessary because families are waiting too long as it is for an initial assessment and that resources can now be focused on those with the “highest clinical need or are the most vulnerable”.

Assess for Autism says Sirona’s own calculations show 60 per cent of young people in Bristol will miss out on the chance to be assessed and that suicide rates are much higher in autistic communities, with those undiagnosed at much greater risk.

An Assess for Autism spokesperson said: “It is deeply concerning that the ICB has chosen to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the positive impact early diagnosis can have. By implementing this regressive policy, the ICB is effectively creating a mental health crisis amongst the city’s young population.

“Families were not consulted on these changes and swift legal action is the only recourse we have to get this policy changed.”

The changes came just as South Gloucestershire Council cabinet approved the findings of a taskforce to improve early intervention for girls with autism.

Cllr Alison Evans, who chaired the group, told the meeting: “I’m alarmed by the new Sirona referral criteria that seems to completely go against our report about identifying girls with autism earlier.

“Now, to even be referred for an autism diagnosis you now need to be more or less in crisis rather than us having our preventative approach to ensure children flourish.”

Sirona and BNSSG ICB said in a statement: ““We changed our referral criteria so our resources can be directed towards the children that have the highest clinical need or are the most vulnerable. It is important that we do not continue to accept more children than we can see and assess and our new approach has also brought us more in line with services across the rest of the country.

“Children do not require a diagnosis to have their needs met in schools and other settings, and the wait for the outcome of a diagnostic assessment can delay children receiving appropriate support.

It said any child referred before March 1 would be assessed under the previous criteria and that it had set up a helpdesk which can be contacted by email at sirona.cpasdhelpdesk@nhs.net or phone on 0300 125 5560.”

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter