The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has published its first set of guidelines on the referral, diagnosis and management of autism in adults and provides a full clinical pathway of care for those with the condition.

The guideline forms part of the Department of Health's autism strategy, which aims to provide a clear and consistent pathway for diagnosis, and provide help for adults with autism to get into work and keep jobs, among other things. This guideline is considered best practice, and is read by health and social care commissioners across the UK. The recommendations include:

  • Local multi-agency groups should be set up, with representation from a range of service areas, to take the lead on changing services locally
  • Specialist autism teams - such as the Liverpool Asperger Team and Bristol Autism Spectrum Service - should be established in every area and equipped with the knowledge to offer diagnosis, training and support
  • Improved support for adults with autism who are experiencing mental health problems
  • Adults with autism, and where applicable their families and carers, should be more involved in the development of their own support plans.

Additionally, NICE says GPs and other healthcare professionals should consider a diagnostic assessment for possible autism under certain specific conditions. These are when a person has one or more features including persistent difficulties in social interaction or social communication, stereotypic (rigid and repetitive) behaviours, and resistance to change or restricted interests.

Professor Stephen Pilling, director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, which developed the guideline on NICE's behalf, said: "The new NICE guideline clearly identifies the most common, recognisable characteristics that could suggest an individual is autistic. "We hope that this advice will inspire greater confidence and awareness among healthcare professionals, and so allow more adults with autism to have their individual needs recognised and receive the support they need."

Richard Mills, director of research at the National Autistic Society (NAS) and member of the Guideline Development Group, said: "While there are estimated to be around 332,600 people of working age in the UK with some form of autism, only 6% have a full-time paid job. "It is encouraging that the NICE guideline highlights employment advice as a particular need as so many adults with autism are able and keen to work, and can bring many skills and qualities to potential employers."

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, added: "The NICE guidelines are an excellent tool for NHS professionals to improve their care of adults with autism. It is vital that the NHS works to advance diagnosis times for people with autism as well as ensuring adequate support is in place following diagnosis. "Where the right support is not in place, it can have an extremely negative impact on an individual. One in 3 adults with autism say they have experienced serious mental health problems due to a lack of support and consequently many require more intensive and expensive support at a later stage. It is therefore not only necessary but financial viable for the NHS to work with local authorities to implement the guidelines sooner rather than later." This is the second of 3 sets of NICE guidelines on autism. The first was released in September 2011 on diagnosis of children and young people with autism. The third, on management of autism in children and young people is scheduled to be published in November 2013.