Northern Ireland

Autistic children in NI schools trebles in a decade

Stock photo of a classroom Image copyright Getty Images

The proportion of children with autism in Northern Irish schools has almost trebled in a decade.

That is according to new figures published by the Department of Health.

In 2019 3.3% of children aged 4-16 had been identified with autism or asperger's syndrome, up from 1.2% in 2009.

The number of children of school-age with autism has been increasing at the rate of around 12% a year for the past decade.

According to the Department of Health's definition, autism is a lifelong disability which affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people and the world around them.

It is known as a 'spectrum disorder' as the condition affects people in many difference ways and to varying degrees.

Asperger's syndrome is similar to autism, but children diagnosed with it can have some different language and learning disabilities.

The department's analysis said that increased awareness and the effect of the Autism Act NI which was passed in 2011 were potential reasons for the rise in diagnoses.

In February, BBC News NI revealed that around 2,500 were still waiting to be assessed for autism.

Children with autism are educated in both mainstream and special schools.

The increase in autism prevalence is particularly pronounced among boys.

Just over 5% of school-age boys were identified with autism in 2019, compared to under 2% in 2009.

They are more than three times as likely to be autistic as girls.

1.5% of school-age girls in Northern Ireland in 2019 had been identified with autism, up from 0.4% in 2009.

The Department of Health's analysis said there were a number of possible explanations for that gender difference.

Some researchers have suggested that girls present differently than boys and that current diagnostic criteria do not fully recognise those differences.

Another hypothesis put forward is that the differences in autism can be explained by genetic differences between males and females.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Almost three times as many boys as girls have been given an autism diagnosis in five years

Autism levels among children are higher in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland.

Well over half (58%) of children with autism were at stage 5 on the Special Educational Need (SEN) assessment process.

In stages 4 and 5 of assessment the Education Authority (EA) is supposed to provide additional help to the pupil and the pupil's school.

Children in urban areas are one and a half times more likely to be autistic than those in rural areas.

As a result the Belfast Trust is the health trust with the highest prevalence of autism - with 5.6% of children identified with autism.

Just under a quarter (23%) of school pupils here have some form of Special Educational Needs, with around 18,000 having a statement of SEN.

The permanent secretary at the Department of Education Derek Baker recently revealed that cost of providing support for pupils with SEN had risen to around £270m a year.

The EA also overspent its SEN budget by over £12m last year.

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