The long wait times Island families face waiting for a child to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or a learning disability came under scrutiny in the P.E.I. Legislature Friday.

The current wait time for Island children to receive an assessment from a psychologist within the school system is about three years, according to government.

Opposition health critic James Aylward says it usually takes a couple years in the school system before families realize there could be a problem.

'Lost so much ground'

"So if you have a child being identified with possibly a learning disability or autism in Grade 2, and you have to wait two or three years, well this child is already at the Grade 4 or 5 level," said Aylward. "And they've lost so much ground at that point, that their education thus far and moving forward has been very negatively impacted."

Some families opt to pay thousands of dollars for a private assessment, but both Aylward and Education Minister Doug Currie agreed many families can't afford to pay that.

"We have a wait time that's completely unacceptable," Currie said during Question Period.

Looking to hire more psychologists

He said the education system has 9.5 psychologist positions filled and is looking to hire more.

In the meantime, he said government is exploring an option the opposition suggested  it should pursue: hiring private practice psychologists to help clear the backlog of assessment cases.

"We've already had a number of conversations about how we outsource," said Currie, noting Island school boards have used private psychologists in the past to reduce backlogs of assessment cases.

In the meantime, he said children do receive classroom supports throughout the period of waiting for a formal assessment.

Ongoing problem

"All children that have been identified would be getting supports every day they go into the schools," he said.

But Aylward questioned how effective those supports can be, if the type of learning disability a child might have has not yet been identified. There are other supports, both within the classroom and outside the school system, that children with autism spectrum disorder cannot access until they receive an official diagnosis.

Aylward also questioned how much priority government has put on this issue, which has been a problem going back at least as far as 2010.

"Every time you turn around they're changing the board structure, they're changing this they're changing that [in education]," he said. "They just don't seem to have a clear focus so that they can just move forward and do what needs to be done, and what should be done, especially for these children."