Page last updated at 21:14 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 22:14 UK

Future of autism centre in doubt

Middletown Centre for Autism

The Irish government has withdrawn funding for the centre

The future of an all-Ireland centre for children with autism has been left in doubt after some of its financial backing was withdrawn.

On Monday, the Irish government said they could not fund the expansion of the Middletown Centre of Excellence because of financial pressure.

Education departments in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have been equally financing the project.

The centre was approved in 2002 but has only opened in a limited way.

It is understood that £6m has already been spent on the centre.

It currently carries out research and training for professionals who work within the autism field, but the eventual aim had been to take children in.

The next stage of building a residential block for assessment and therapy, and employing extra staff, is now in doubt because of the shortage of funds.

Building work was due to begin in the autumn with the facility to open in 2010.

The Irish Minister for Education and Science, Batt O'Keeffe, said it was unfortunate that the pressure on government finance meant he could not provide the funding required.

'Vulnerable children'

In a statement Mr O'Keeffe said the current economic climate meant the Irish government "had to thoroughly review all educational projects and programmes".

"In the current circumstances, we cannot do all we would wish to in terms of enhanced services," said Mr O'Keeffe.

"The decision doesn't mean that funding is being withdrawn from Middletown.

"The department will, of course, keep the expansion of the Middletown Centre under review in the context of improved economic circumstances."

However, NI Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said she was very disappointed and has called on him to stand by commitments made and reverse his decision.

"We can't afford not to continue with the project," she said.

"This project has to go ahead, this project will go ahead. It is important, especially in times in economic difficulties, that we don't disadvantage our most vulnerable children, our children on the autistic spectrum."

The two ministers are due to meet at the North South Ministerial Council, which is being held at the Middletown centre on Wednesday.

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