A PROMINENT Omagh GP has said that the Western Trust does not have the resources necessary to deliver an early autism diagnosis for all the local children that need it.
While acknowledging that huge progress has been made in our understanding of autism in the last decade, local GP and recently reelected councillor, Dr Josephine Deehan, said that waiting lists to see an autism specialist are still far too long.
“Autism needs to be diagnosed as early as possible, so that the child can receive the support they need to aid their development,” said Dr Deehan, speaking with the UlsterHerald earlier this week.
“At the moment, far too many children are undiagnosed because the waiting lists are simply too long.”
A recent report by the Department of Health claimed that ‘school aged’ boys were three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than their female counterparts.
The report also revealed that deprived areas in the North tended to have a higher rate of autism than more affluent areas, and the same was true of urban areas and rural areas, with children in urban areas more likely to receive a diagnosis that those in a rural settings.
Of the six health trusts in the North, the Western Trust had the second-lowest percentage of school aged children diagnosed with autism.
“What these statistics tell me is that more research has to be done to build a fuller understanding of autism and the factors that influence it.”
Dr Deehan acknowledged that the figures were likely to cause concern among parents.
“This report will worry parents, who will want to know more about the links between autism and environmental factors, not least deprivation and rurality.”
However, while Dr Deehan said that it was not yet clear why deprivation correlated with higher rates of autism, she did provide a theory to make sense of the disparity in the diagnosis distribution between boys and girls.
“The differences between boys and girls might not be as stark as the figures would first suggest,” she said. “The reason for the apparent gap in the numbers between boys and girls is likely because it is easier to diagnose autism in boys than in girls.”
She continued, “Boys often display more obvious behavioural and social indicators than girls, making it more likely that somebody will bring them to a doctor and get them the referral they require.
“Autism in girls, on the other hand, is often mistaken for shyness or introversion.
“This means that many girls are not diagnosed until adulthood, which really too late in most instances.”
The Fermanagh and Omagh councillor explained that autism is a spectrum disorder, and one that requires more study.
“There are some people who are severely disabled by their autism, and while there who are able to function highly and hold down demanding jobs.
“A spotlight has been shone on autism over the last ten years, and as a result we know much more about it than we used to. However, there is still so much to learn.”
Concluding, Dr Deehan reemphasised the importance of early diagnosis. “Early identification, diagnosis and support is crucial for many people with autism. As a health service, and a society more broadly, we need to have robust measures in place to identify autism early and provide the help for everyone who needs it.”