Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Autistic adults have poorer access to and outcomes from mental healthcare

Autistic adults using NHS mental healthcare services are more likely to experience worse therapy outcomes compared to non-autistic people, according to new research.

The research, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, has also revealed that autistic adults are largely under-represented in mental healthcare services, despite being more likely to experience anxiety or depression than the general population.

The authors of the study are now calling on health leaders to ensure they are making adjustments for autistic people to ensure they can access these vital services.

Autistic people more likely to experience mental health problems

It is estimated that roughly a quarter of autistic people and experience anxiety (27%) and depression (23%). Comparatively, just 6% of the general population experience anxiety and 3% experience depression.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Standard (NICE) recommends that people experiencing anxiety or depression attend talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling.

With such a high proportion of autistic people experiencing mental health problems, researchers at University College London (UCL) wanted to find out whether these mental healthcare services are effective for autistic people.

Autistic people one third more likely to experience a deterioration in anxiety and/or depression

To do this, they used existing data from large medical records databases to measure participants’ outcomes (depression and anxiety scores) both before and after therapy to see if there was an improvement in symptoms.

They found that autistic people were 25% less likely to see an improvement in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to non-autistic people. They were also 34% more likely to experience a deterioration in these symptoms.

Outcomes were not only worse for autistic people following talking therapies compared to non-autistic people, but they were also largely under-represented in services.

The authors of the study suspect this reflects the “specific barriers” that autistic people experience to accessing therapy and the lack of appropriate adaption for neurodiversity. This includes differences in thinking style, sensory sensitivities or the need for predictability.

Mental healthcare services must be made accessible

Many autistic people require adjustments to be made to ensure equal access to healthcare, employment, and local authority support, and the authors are now calling for similar adjustments to be made to ensure mental healthcare services are more accessible for autistic people.

Ms El Baou said: “These findings are important because they highlight how crucial it is to make adequate adaptations to therapies provided in primary care for autistic people, and to make them as accessible and effective as possible for them.”

The National Autistic Society (NAS) say this study reflects what they hear too often: “That autistic adults are not getting the mental health support that they need.”

Mental health professionals must receive autism training

Anoushka Pattenden, Evidence and Research Manager (Partnerships) at NAS, said: “Action needs to be taken now to make sure health services are just as effective for autistic people.

“It’s vital that mental health professionals receive training in identifying and understanding autism, are flexible in their approach, and include autistic people in discussions about the treatment and adjustments they need.

“We continue to campaign for improved understanding, adapted support and better outcomes for autistic people to create the fair and equal health system they deserve.”

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