New autism test faces scrutiny

Rick Morton

A Coalition plan to introduce a new national guideline for autism diagnoses will further raise demand for clinical assessments that already cost thousands of dollars and could end up dis­advantaging children if they are not implemented properly, an ­expert has warned.

The head of the child development team at Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, Adam Guastella, said he was not sure whether it was even possible to introduce the guidelines “in the present day”. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done before they can work, and it absolutely will cost more money,” Professor Guastella said.

Social Services Minister Paul Fletcher said yesterday there would be no change for people now supported by the NDIS.

“If you are supported by the NDIS, that will continue,” he said. “Of course it is the case for people with autism and with any other disability that plans are routinely reviewed to see if there are changes that can be made, to see how the interventions are working.”

Mr Fletcher said there was an “error made by the NDIS” when it removed autism (level two) from a list of conditions that granted automatic access to the scheme but denied a recommendation in the new guideline to ­ignore severity levels in the ­future was related to the mistake.

“I want to make it very clear about what is being announced today,” he said. “These new guidelines go to the way that clin­icians, medical and health professionals will make a diagnosis of autism. What they do not involve is any change to the processes that are used to assess whether someone is eligible for support under the NDIS.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the streamlined diagnosis — placing greater emphasis on highly specialised practitioners and “consensus” teams of professionals — would ensure “tens of thousands of Australians” would receive the support and benefits of intervention. Asked if the NDIS could use new functional assessments to reduce the value of support for participants, Mr Hunt said: “That’s not the advice we’ve had.”

Professor Guastella said the key issue was whether the new guideline would further cramp a system where people “spend months waiting in public hospitals” for a diagnosis. It would need a much stronger evidence base before it could be judged a success.