THOUSANDS of patients are waiting months for an autism diagnosis in the Black Country, figures show.

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence has set a target time of 13 weeks for those with suspected autism to be assessed.

But figures from NHS England show around 3,640 people in the area covered by the NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board had been waiting at least this long for an autism diagnosis at the end of 2023.

Of these, 66 per cent were under 18.

This was up from the same point a year before, when 2,225 people were waiting for 13 weeks or longer, 68 per cent of them children.

Across England, referrals for autism have been on the rise for adults and children.

Analysis from the Nuffield Trust think tank shows the 172,000 open referrals in December is the highest figure ever, and a five-fold increase since 2019.

Thea Stein, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, called the rise in demand "unprecedented", saying the NHS is struggling to meet it.

She urged: "We are only now beginning to recognise just how many people are neurodiverse. The challenge is that we have an obsolete health service model in place to deal with this avalanche of need."

"We need to urgently understand the different elements of this complex picture and find a whole system approach across education, society at large and the health service," she added.

Across the country 136,000 people were referred to NHS autism services in 2023, with 3,060 of them in the Black Country.

In 2022 there were 112,000 new referrals.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, said improving the quality of care and access to services for autistic people "must be a priority".

"That includes making sure patients, carers and families are involved fully in decisions about their care. We need to make sure too that the full range of services on which autistic people rely are funded properly and prioritised nationwide," she added.

She said trusts need greater government investment to deal with the increased pressure they are under.

The Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said it has been working to improve waiting times for diagnosis against a backdrop of increased demand.

A spokesperson for the trust said: “As a society we are now more aware of autism and people are more able to recognise the symptoms in themselves and people around them. While more understanding and awareness is undoubtedly a positive development, it means there is more demand for autism diagnostic services both nationally and here in the Black Country.

“In this challenging context, we are working to improve waiting times by improving diagnostic pathways and increasing staff to work on waiting lists. We are working hard on this but acknowledge that this may take time due to the specialist skills and knowledge required.

“As lead provider for autism services in the Black Country, our specialist teams support children, young people and adults with autism to live happier and healthier lives. For example, our keyworker service provides personalised support to young people to help them live well in the community. Meanwhile, our Thrive into Work neurodiversity service supports adults with autism to find meaningful employment that matches their interests and aspirations.

“We are committed to working to reduce waiting times across age ranges to ensure our communities receive high quality care and to support autistic citizens to live full, healthy lives.”