A jump in the number of children with autism has sparked concerns about whether the National Disability Insurance Scheme can keep up with the growing demand for support services.
Federal government data obtained by Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia shows the number of children with autism spectrum disorder rose 9.4 per cent to 78,951 in the year to June 30.
More than 6,000 children were diagnosed during the year, at an average rate of 16.5 each day.
The advocacy group's convenor Bob Buckley said the annual increase has slowed from the average rise of about 18 per cent between 2004 and 2011.
But he fears the government wasn't doing enough to ensure its National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) can meet demand for support through the NDIS.
He urged the government to do more to ensure children with autism receive early intervention, as research had shown this to be beneficial for many.
"Autism is a life-long condition for most people and we see low rates of employment and low levels of education among those with autism and early intervention can help reduce those things" he told AAP on Thursday.
"Increasingly in the US the private health insurance industry is required to fund early intervention but there's none of that in Australia.
"Even though we have high levels of health insurance the government isn't thinking of it as far as we can tell, and they're not thinking about the need to train people in this country to provide support."
Based on the government data from the Department of Social Services, Mr Buckley estimates that 2.5 per cent of children aged between 10 and 14 have been diagnosed with autism: 62,600 boys and 16,300 girls.
The NDIA's quarterly report at the end of June said autism and related disorders was the most common primary disability (31 per cent) among participants in the NDIS, followed by those with an intellectual disability.
Professor Ingrid Sheffer, a paediatric neurologist from the University of Melbourne, said given that there was a huge range in the forms of autism spectrum disorder, a variety of resources were needed to care for children.
Many with more severe forms of ASD often were at risk of harming themselves and needed individual care.
"Those people need huge resources and they have been under resourced so the NDIS has a mammoth task," Prof Sheffer said.
"If we can help people with ASD to function it helps all of us. It helps their quality of life and it helps society to support them. "
Comment was being sought from the NDIS, Department of Social Services and Social Services Minister Christian Porter.
A spokesperson for Social Services Minister Christian Porter said as the NDIS was an uncapped scheme, anyone who meets the requirements to receive funded support would do.
"Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)'s entrance into the NDIS is currently within the expected range, there is no overrun in costs as a result of participants with ASD, and the NDIA's planning does allow for growing numbers of autistic participants," the spokesperson said in a statement to AAP.
The spokesperson added that higher than expected proportion of NDIS participants with ASD reflected the fact that people currently being identified as having the condition were previously classified as having a different primary disability.
"Importantly, increases in the number of Australians being diagnosed with ASD ... do not equate to an increase in the number of people eligible for the NDIS," the spokesperson said.
Editorial: there is no evidence that all "people currently being identified as having [autism/ASD] were previously classified as having a different primary disability". This is not a "fact" ... and cannot be made one by just saying it out loud. If there were evidence, surely the Government would have shifted funding for disability peak bodies to reflect the change ... but they didn't.
Some of the increase in autism diagnoses is due to diagnostic substitution but an editorial in Nature concluded “The growth in the prevalence of autism can be explained only partly by changes in diagnostic practice.”
It is fact that the NDIS has far more
- autistic participants than were expected, and
- participants than planned for in South Australia and ACT.
This is a very strong indication that increases in autism do equate to increasing eligibility for the NDIS.