The study found most local authorities and NHS organisations did not know how many people with autism were living in their area and that they “lacked understanding” of the condition.
It also said increased investment in specialist services for people with the condition could lead to cost savings over the long-term.
A survey conducted by the NAO found that only 18% of local authorities and NHS organisations were able to say how many adults with both autism and learning disabilities were known to services.
No commissioning strategy in most cases
It also found that around 75% of councils did not have a specific commissioning strategy for adults with autism. In addition, 80% of GPs surveyed said that they needed more training and guidance in order to identify and treat patients with autism more effectively.
Edward Leigh MP, chair of the House of Commons’ committee of public accounts, to which the NAO reports, said that services were not being properly planned and that many adults with autism were slipping through the net as a result.
He added: “Many GPs and social care staff have a low awareness of autism and the needs of those with the condition.”
Specialist services urged
Leigh called on the Department of Health to look at developing specialist social care, health and housing support services for adults with autism.
The NAO said this would cost an estimated £40m a year but over time the costs could be outweighed by public expenditure savings.
It also strongly criticised the lack of support offered to the estimated 200,000 adults with autism who do not have a learning disability.
Around three-quarters of local authorities admitted that this group experienced difficulties in accessing the services they needed as they were often ruled ineligible.
Only 10% of councils and NHS bodies surveyed said that they had commissioned ongoing specialist support for this group, despite evidence showing that such services would help them to live more independently in the community and prevent long-term health problems.
Response from campaigners
The report comes with Parliament considering an Autism Bill that would require the government to produce statutory guidance on the identification of adults with autism, by putting its forthcoming adult autism strategy on a statutory footing.
Though it started as a private member’s bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan, the government effectively took over the legislation last month by pushing amendments to incorporate the strategy into the bill.
The National Autistic Society said it was vital that the strategy reflected the NAO’s criticisms.
Government ‘must undertake study’
The charity’s chief executive, Mark Lever, said: “The government committed, over a year ago, to doing a prevalence study on the numbers of adults with autism. This has not yet happened and urgently needs to be undertaken.”
He added: “Neither the government, people with autism nor the taxpayer are getting value for money from existing autism services and support, leaving those affected by the condition feeling isolated, ignored and often at breaking point. This is simply unacceptable.”