MORE than twice as many patients were waiting longer than 13 weeks for their suspected autism to be diagnosed in Dorset in spring, than before the pandemic, new figures show.

Autism is a lifelong condition which impacts how people communicate and interact with the world.

It is normally diagnosed at a young age, although some may receive a diagnosis as teenagers or into adulthood.

Many people referred for assessment are being forced to wait too long to access autism-specific support services, as the latest figures from NHS England show a backlog has built up across the country.

As of the end of March, around 325 of the 490 adults and children waiting for an autism assessment in the NHS Dorset CCG area had been on the list for more than 13 weeks, the longest time someone should wait for a diagnosis following a referral, according to national guidance.

This was more than double the 115 patients waiting longer than 13 weeks at the beginning of March 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Just 14 of those waiting for a diagnosis in Dorset were under 18.

Tim Nicholls, head of influencing and research at the National Autistic Society, a charity supporting those with the condition, said a diagnosis can be "life-changing" and is crucial to getting the right help and advice.

He said: “Without proper long-term funding for diagnosis services across the country, we fear that the waiting list will continue to grow and people could be left waiting months or even years for a diagnosis.

"For many of them, this will mean struggling without support at school, work or home."

Part of the uptick in Dorset may be explained by increasing demand for autism services, the data shows there were around 315 new referrals in the first quarter of this year, up from 50 in the first three months of 2020.

A spokesperson for the NHS said it was seeing "record numbers" of people coming forward for support, and that the health service is working to meet increased demand on autism services.