Mild autism cases are not the NDIS’s core concern

The Australian (editorial)

The following are the (unAustralian) views of The Australian newspaper's editorial staff. A4 rejects these views.

The National Disability Insurance Agency has made a prudent call in deciding that some autism sufferers will no longer qualify automatically for assistance under its $22 billion scheme. On Saturday, Rick Morton reported that officials are endeavouring to rein in costs by paring back the number of people with autism receiving funding packages. Among National Disability Insurance Scheme participants, 29 per cent have autism. Autism is the single biggest condition listed among the 30,000 children aged 14 and under. Of these, almost half are regarded as high-functioning with a “low level of disability”. However fraught, now is the time to resolve eligibility issues before the NDIS reaches full rollout in 2020, when it is set to serve 475,000 people.

The NDIA’s List A of conditions automatically eligible for support includes double amputees and people with brain injuries. It has also long contained autism levels two and three. The globally accepted Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders breaks autism into three categories, with level one being the lowest, level two requiring substantial support and level three requiring “very substantial support”. Conditions on the NDIA’s List B do not guarantee entry to the scheme because they are “permanent conditions for which functional capacity is variable and further assessment ... is generally required”. Common sense and fiscal responsibility suggest that this is where applications for assistance for all but the most serious autism cases belong. They need careful assessment.

Given the prevalence of autism diagnoses, especially among children, The Australian warned three years ago of the need for careful assessment of applications for assistance under the NDIS: “Depending on the severity of their conditions, autism sufferers and their families need and receive assistance,’’ we editorialised in July 2015. “But the role of the NDIS should not be primarily to deal with that spectrum of disorders but to support Australians with serious physical and mental disabilities. Severely disabled adults and children, especially those who need constant care and whose family carers are often unable to work outside the home, deserve priority.’’

Based on expert diagnosis, severely disabled autism sufferers deserve help under the NDIS. But as The Australian has reported previously, the agency has been concerned about some people with autism being ushered into the NDIS where “eligibility criteria have not otherwise been met”. The NDIA deserves credit for facing the fact that clearer boundaries are needed to ensure scarce resources are spent to best advantage for those with the most severe disabilities — its main clientele.

Under the dud deals rushed through by Julia Gillard to shore up her “legacy’’, the commonwealth shoulders 100 per cent of NDIS cost overruns while the states enjoy equal say and equal control over the scheme’s implementation. Some states have taken advantage of the structure to cut assistance for sufferers of various conditions, including autism. They must be held accountable for doing so. But that is no reason why federal taxpayers should pick up the slack.