Hong Kong admits it is failing its autistic children, and the situation is likely to only get worse as latest findings reveal more children are being diagnosed with the condition.
One campaigner at the city's first summit on autism said that the official number of autistic children is just a few thousand, but the actual figure could be as high as 200,000.
The latest research in the US shows the number of children with the neuro-developmental disorder - which affects language and social skills - rising to one in 88, from one in 110.
Secretary of Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok said yesterday that the rise was not because more children were being born autistic, rather that the disorder was being defined more broadly.
'The increase has to do with widening diagnostic criteria for autism,' he said after the conference. 'So there is no need for panic about the increase in cases in Hong Kong.'
Chow acknowledged that existing facilities were 'insufficient', and he said the immediate problem was the need for early diagnosis.
'Many children get diagnosed only when they are already in primary school and are usually considered naughty. It is very important for the disorder to be identified much earlier,' he said.
Lam Woon-kwong, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said it would take Hong Kong at least 'a couple of decades' to provide all autistic children with the special education they need.
He added: 'It would not surprise me to see a sharp increase of figures of autistic children because we are behind [on diagnosis]. It could be somewhere between 70,000 and 200,000. But the official figure is in the thousands.
'What is at stake is not just the children's future, but also the quality of life of parents, families and the society at large. So I think it's just common sense that early investment in intervention will pay off much better than subsequent support and care.'
The Social Welfare Department's queue for special care has some 5,700 children. They are waiting to be admitted to one of the 6,200 slots that are currently occupied.
According to Heep Hong Society, an NGO that provides special education for 2,000 children under six, 60 per cent of its students had waited a year for a place, and 30 per cent a year and a half.
'We can't lose one single day for early intervention to be effective. The stress on the parents is particularly hard,' said Peter Au-yeung, the society's assistant director.
The need for care is dire as new cases pop up in the eastern New Territories involving children born in Hong Kong by non-resident parents. 'They are entitled to our services but commute from Shenzhen every day to our Sheung Shui centre for special care. These cases add to our already strained resources,' Au-Yeung said.