Health services in Dundee may have to be overhauled to deal with an explosion in the number of Dundonians diagnosed with the challenging developmental disability autism.
The Courier can reveal that last year the city was identified as home to more people with the condition and other learning disabilities than any other part of Scotland, per 1,000 of population.
The number increased from 48 in 2008 to 170 in 2013 while, overall, the number of people with a learning disability is said to have “risen considerably” in recent years.
Improved diagnosis is likely to be one contributing factor, but NHS Tayside has admitted the exact reasons for the spike are “uncertain”.
Scottish Autism believes that new and improved services, innovation and a rise in specialist provision will be required to support those living with the condition.
NHS Tayside says it has already begun to respond to the challenges by investing in the creation of a specialist autism team.
The lifelong and often misunderstood condition affects how a person communicates with the world and relates to other people.
Many who live with autism struggle with social interaction in particular, but the spectrum condition means that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition affects them in different ways.
Some have very complex care requirements and at times this demands expert and often expensive two-to-one support from carers.
Scottish Autism said the health and charity sectors would have to develop to provide the support needed by an increasing number of young people and adults.
“We are working in close partnership with commissioners of services in Dundee and are aware of increasing numbers with a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD),” a spokeswoman said.
“The impact on services will mean a rise in specialist provision and new innovative ways of supporting children, adults and families.
“Models of service provision will require to be flexible, creative and needs-led and will need to work in partnership with the local authority to provide increased opportunities for those with ASD in Dundee.
“A holistic approach using a partnership between local authorities, education providers and service providers like Scottish Autism will be the way forward.”
Dr Eleanor Brewster is a consultant in psychiatry of learning disabilities with NHS Tayside.
She said: “Reasons for the increased prevalence of autistic spectrum conditions are uncertain but probably reflect, at least in part, different diagnostic processes and reporting and also better awareness of these conditions.
“Prevalence of learning disability is also increasing, with relevant factors including increased survival rates among young people with severe and complex disabilities and people with learning disability tending to survive to a greater age.
“There is a lot of overlap between the two groups, with about half of people with autism also having a learning disability and up to a third of people with a learning disability also having autism.
“In many cases where there is both a learning disability and autistic spectrum diagnosis there is a high level of complexity and so there is a need for suitably skilled provision at all levels, which NHS Tayside works with partner agencies to achieve.”
The latest figures on autism are found within the annual report of Dundee City Council’s social work department.
They show that last year, the council was the local authority with the most people with a learning disability/autism per 1,000 of the population at 9.5 people, with the Scottish average being 6.0 per 1,000.