NHS waiting lists for autism assessments hit a record high after a ‘seismic’ increase in awareness of the condition

  • Last December, 172,040 people were waiting for an assessment

A ‘seismic’ rise in autism awareness has sent waiting lists to record levels, experts say.

The NHS waiting list for autism assessment is the longest since the current registration began five years ago.

Charities warned that the long wait could harm patients and called for urgent action to meet rising demand.

Figures released by NHS Digital show that both the total number of times waiting for an assessment and those waiting longer than 13 weeks are the highest since data collection began.

Last December, 172,040 people were waiting for an assessment, compared to 117,020 a year earlier and more than five times as many as the 32,220 in December 2019.

The NHS waiting list for autism assessment is the longest since current registration began five years ago and charities have warned the wait is having a negative impact on patients

According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in every hundred children around the world has the condition (stock image)

According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in every hundred children around the world has the condition (stock image)

The number of people waiting at least thirteen weeks was 147,070, six times as many as in 2019 (24,250) and more than 97,170 a year earlier.

Experts say the numbers are due in large part to the growing recognition of the spectrum disorder, which was only widely diagnosed as its own condition this century.

Dr. Conor Davidson, Autism Champion at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘Public awareness of autism has increased significantly in recent years, and this has led to a seismic increase in the number of people coming forward for support.

‘It is estimated that at least 1 per cent of the population is autistic, so it is likely that demand will continue to grow in the coming years.’ He added that the “vast majority of people face unacceptable wait times for an assessment, and we cannot allow this to become normal.”

Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects the way people communicate and interact with each other. According to the World Health Organization, about one in every hundred children around the world has the condition.

Signs in adults include not understanding how others feel, becoming anxious about social situations, having a strict routine, or appearing blunt without meaning to.

Autistic children may avoid eye contact and not respond to being called their name, among other symptoms.

Autistic people are also much more likely to have co-morbid mental health conditions, putting them at greater risk of self-harm and suicide if they don’t have access to the care and treatment they need, Dr Davidson warned.

Mel Merritt, head of policy and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, said: ‘It is deeply worrying that waiting lists for autism assessment in England have almost doubled in the past year.

‘There are now more than 172,000 people potentially struggling without the right help and support in their daily lives – almost twice the capacity of Wembley Stadium.

‘The government promised to make significant progress in reducing waiting times for diagnoses in its autism strategy, but these figures highlight how in fact the opposite is happening.’

A Government spokesperson said: ‘We know it is crucial to diagnose autism in a timely manner, and we have made Ā£4.2 million available this year to improve care for autistic children and young people, including autism assessment services.

‘NHS England has also published a national framework to help speed up assessment, and our Ā£13m partnership with the Department for Education and NHS England is testing ideas that will improve access to specialist support for neurodiverse children in primary schools.’