The numbers of people with autism eligible for the $22 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme were “grossly underestimated” from the start.
Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia (A4) convener Bob Buckley said there was “no consultation with stakeholders, no consultation on autism” before the scheme began trials and only now has a “secret” working group been formed. “The (NDIS) agency has always believed that autism is massively over-diagnosed,” Mr Buckley told The Weekend Australian. “It has the view that most of the increase in autism is really just people that want to get services.”
The scheme’s designers have allowed for only 80,000 early intervention places for children with developmental delays, but an oversubscription of autism cases threatens a budget blowout.
Mr Buckley cited a 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers report which preceded the Productivity Commission’s blueprint for the NDIS in which the rate of autism diagnoses in Australia was underestimated by a factor of four.
The report said 1253 people were diagnosed every year, when the real figure was closer to 5000, Mr Buckley said. For its part, the Productivity Commission was of the view that increases in autism diagnoses were at least partly related to a Howard-era program called Helping Children with Autism, which promised $12,000 in funding for children before the age of seven. As rates climbed the program was given another $30 million under the following Labor government. “That is what the Productivity Commission says but if you look at the long-term trend there is barely even a blip for the introduction of the HCWA,” Mr Buckley said.
The case of rising autism rates was revealed by this newspaper after a blowout in the number of eligible participants in the NDIS trial in South Australia. Children with autism accounted for almost every place in the original agreement of 5085 children up to the age of 14, leaving just 55 places for people with other disabilities. Those figures have since been doubled. “We already knew that agreement was completely wrong. Not only did they not ask anybody but when they were told they ignored it,” Mr Buckley said.
Assistant Social Services Minister Mitch Fifield said in states apart from South Australia, the numbers in the trial sites were roughly in line with Productivity Commission estimates. He said funding for early intervention packages — for those with developmental delays — was not capped and suggested package prices were only “benchmarks”.
“The NDIS takes an insurance-based approach to early intervention and focuses on the needs of individuals, which means that many children who are accessing the NDIS for early intervention services may not require ongoing assistance,” he said. “Children with slight learning needs are not expected to be eligible for the NDIS so their support will remain a responsibility of other systems.”
Some children in South Australia who are receiving packages have not been diagnosed with autism, but have speech and language delays.
Autism Awareness Australia chief executive Nicole Rogerson said she believed diagnoses were becoming more accurate. “The kids were always there but there was no funding so they were flying blind,” she said. “They were in the education system, which is doing a shocking job at helping them. Now the NDIS is here and we’re discovering that unmet need.”
About 30 per cent of all participants in the NDIS have autism, which is the largest single disability category in the scheme.