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(Australia) Increases in autism rate blamed on parents playing the system

May 19, 2023, Sydney Morning Herald: Sharp rise: More than 8 per cent of young school children now on NDIS

More than 8 per cent of young school-aged children are participants of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, fuelling concerns that more severe autism is being over-diagnosed so that families can receive support for their struggling kids.

Quarterly NDIS data published on Friday reveals 11 per cent of 5 to 7-year-old boys and 5 per cent of girls are participants of the scheme – representing a jump of almost one percentage point in just three months.

For participants under 18 years old, who make up more than half of those enrolled for NDIS, autism is the most common disability (54 per cent) followed by developmental delay (21 per cent). Both are more prevalent in boys than girls.

But Jim Mullan, the chief executive of peak autism body Amaze, said the rates of autism suggested by the NDIS statistics were “greater than a scale we would normally expect to see”.

“The increase we’ve seen in [autism] in the NDIS, particularly children, is not explained by what we understand as traditional or conventional autism rates in the population,” he said.

“It could be suggested there is some kind of rorting of the system around autism [diagnosis].”

Mullan said families used to have access to a wider range of autism supports, but they dried up when the NDIS was developed. “Under those circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to find a change in the way the diagnosis is being delivered.”

He said cases that might have previously been considered level 1 diagnoses, which is less severe, were now becoming level 2 diagnoses – which is the threshold for qualifying for the NDIS.

“This is being driven by a group of professionals who know that, if families and children don’t get that level of diagnosis, the likelihood is they get no support at all,” he said.

“There’s no other reasonable expectation for seeing the rates we’re seeing and the fact that, over time, it feels like level 1 diagnosis is disappearing.” Experts say perverse incentives are driving families to seek more severe autism diagnoses to receive support for their struggling kids, as schools and early childhood systems are not providing enough support. GETTY

Andrew Whitehouse, a professor of autism research at the Telethon Kids Institute and University of Western Australia, said the new data was unsurprising.

“Our systems have developed a perverse incentive for families to seek out diagnoses, and that is doing no favours to anyone because it blows out diagnostic waitlists [and] extends the time that it takes for kids to receive support,” he said.

“Clinical diagnoses are a means to inform and understand. But what these systems have done is make diagnosis the ends. And the sooner we change that the better.”


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