A "GROUND-BREAKING" early years autism project is set to be launched across all Bradford primary schools after a successful pilot.

Bradford Opportunity Area set up the Government-funded project in 2019 to help identify autism in children quicker and provide a more speedy and family-focused diagnosis.

10 schools in Bradford and York were included in the pilot study with the Centre for Applied Educational Research (CAER), which found a strong link between the scores children received within their Early Years Foundational Stage Profile (EYFSP), and the later diagnosis of autism.

Now, new funding will assess 100 children in schools in both areas for one year. It is hoped it will benefit the lives of those children who may miss out on assessments otherwise.

Typically, autism can take up to three years to diagnose, with a referral through school or a GP needed in order for a child to be added to a waiting list and eventually assessed within a clinical setting. This project will see the children assessed on one day in their school by a team of clinicians and education professionals. The project hopes to achieve a quicker diagnostic process, as well as ensuring autism is picked up earlier in a more convenient and less disruptive process.

Kathryn Loftus, Programme Director at Bradford Opportunity Area said: “Delayed diagnosis can lead to problems for the child down the line, such as behavioural issues and lower attainment levels.

“Families of children with autism have previously reported that support was not in place early enough for their children."

For Nicola Roth, headteacher at Lilycroft Primary School in Manningham, change has been a long-time coming. When she first arrived in Bradford 20 years ago, reports claimed the district had extremely low numbers of autistic children - but Nicola knew this only meant children were undiagnosed and without any support.

"I was basically knocking on doors to try find these children," she recalls.

"It was really breaking down those barriers and this project has acknowledged the best place to do this is the school.

"It's ground-breaking in the fact it listens to teachers and asked for their opinion on the child. Even though it relies on the EYFSP score, teachers often know who has autistic tendencies but it takes so long to go through the current system and to reassure the parents it can be resolved. They still think their children are very young and that they'll grow out of it.

"If this is successful and it's rolled out in Bradford it could fundamentally change the way children are diagnosed with autism across the country. It would be cost effective. Sometimes you're trying to say 'there's a problem here' and you have to fill six boxes in and get parents to go to a special clinic. With everybody coming to the school it's just been amazing."

When asked how this will change the lives of autistic pupils, the headteacher said: "I would feel there's less chance of exclusions because we know why the child acts like that. That engagement with the parents is there so they don't become frustrated with the child at home. Everybody knows why their child is like that. You'll know how they learn and what their issues are. You can play to their strengths while changing their teaching."

The pilot study led to improved screening processes which involved both, parents and teachers as well as clinicians. Children with autism received a diagnosis and full report, while children with other support needs were referred to other specialist support.

The project received positive feedback from all 10 Bradford schools involved in the trial. The guidance provided to schools and families will help ensure children receive the best and most appropriate support to help them achieve their full potential.

If your school is interested in taking part in the project simply get in touch via punch@bthft.nhs.uk