Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel has uncovered what he calls “the startling truth” over the scandal of families struggling to get autism assessments for their children.

Mr Sobel says his findings of what he says is a “dire” situation are “sparking concerns over the well-being of children and families grappling with autism spectrum disorders”.

Mr Sobel has been working with several families in his constituency who are struggling to get assessments, and he conducted a survey to judge the level of the problems in either getting an assessment in the first place or receiving the necessary treatment following an assessment.

He said: “These enquires also exposed a distressing gap in the provision of pre-school autism assessments in Leeds. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and Social care, Victoria Atkins MP, to ask if she would make an assessment of the adequacy of the number of professionals able to offer pre-school autism assessments in Leeds.”

Mr Sobel’s written question was answered by Maria Caulfield MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, who admitted there are no concrete plans in place to address the issue.

She said: “An assessment of the adequacy of the number of professionals able to offer pre-school autism assessments in Leeds is not currently planned. It is the responsibility of integrated care boards (ICBs) to make available appropriate provision to meet the health and care needs of their local population, including autism assessment services, in line with relevant clinical guidelines.”

She said that the West Yorkshire ICB had said that pre-school autism assessments in Leeds were temporarily stopped due to a shortage of professionals.

But Mrs Caulfield added: “The service remains suspended as it needs one full time equivalent clinical psychologist. The post has recently been recruited, and plans are in place for the service to reopen by the end of June 2024.”

Mr Sobel said: "The West Yorkshire ICB's explanation of a temporary suspension of pre-school autism assessments due to a shortage of professionals is simply unacceptable.

“Families should not be left waiting indefinitely for essential services that directly impact the well-being and development of their children.

“While it is encouraging to hear that one full-time equivalent clinical psychologist has been recruited, the timeline for the service to resume operations by the end of June 2024 is far from reassuring. Every day of delay represents a missed opportunity to provide timely support and intervention to those in need.”

Mrs Caulfield said that nationally, the government was taking steps to improve autism assessment services and NHS England recently published a national framework and operational guidance for autism assessment services to help improve the experience for adults and children who are going through an autism assessment.

Mr Sobel added that this was “a step in the right direction but added it “must be swiftly and effectively implemented at the local level. It is not enough to have guidelines in place if they are not being translated into tangible action and meaningful support for individuals and families affected by autism.

“The well-being and prospects of our children must be a top priority, and it is incumbent upon the authorities to take immediate steps to rectify this unacceptable situation.”

A spokesperson for West Yorkshire ICB said: “We share parents’ and carers’ concerns. Timely access for children and young people awaiting assessment or diagnosed with autism and/or ADHD, remains a priority in West Yorkshire.

“We're committed to addressing this through fostering collaboration across all children’s services. Our priorities include early intervention, community healthcare, and support for complex needs and SEND. We aim to create equitable services that reduce disparities in access and outcomes.

“There is much to do and a key challenge is the workforce shortage for autism and ADHD diagnosis. We’re working collaboratively with partners across the system, to review capacity against demand, working towards developing integrated workforce plans and joint recruitment initiatives to recruit to vacant posts.

“We're exploring ways to support mainstream health services and improve pre- and post-diagnosis support. Work is underway in each of our local places to enhance assessment pathways and support services, for example, we have held two neurodiversity summits with a focus on Autism and ADHD and have taken the feedback from this from our cross-sector partners and people with lived experience to understand opportunities which may help address the challenges our system and people trying to access support face. “We will be looking how to address waits and waiting well, a whole system approach is needed to support people based on their needs.

“We are committed to exploring innovative approaches to improve support for children’s care as highlighted in our integrated care strategy and joint forward plan and are doing all we can to make this reality for children, parents, carers and families”.