NICE sets three-month waiting target for austism diagnoses

People assessed for autism should be referred to a specialist team, according to new quality standards

Adult with autism and carer
Picture posed by models. Photo: Rex/Photofusion

People thought to have autism should have their assessment started within three months and be referred to a specialist team, health body the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has said.

NICE published a set of eight quality standards to improve the care of people with autism yesterday, which emphasised the need to speed up diagnosis and help people deal with their condition through support rather than medication.

The standards said people with autism should not be prescribed drug treatments to deal with the symptoms of autism because they are ineffective and risky. Instead, professionals should look at activities which might help, such as improving social skills, leisure pastimes or help with getting a job.

The paper said that, if someone with autism behaves aggressively or becomes upset, professionals should look for triggers, such as other health problems or changes to their home, school or work environment. They should only resort to medication if other treatments do not work or cannot be used.

Other recommendations include that people with autism should have a personalised support plan coordinated by a named key worker, who may be a health or social care worker, the paper added.

People being assessed for autism should also be checked to for other physical health conditions or mental health problems.

The National Autistic Society’s (NAS) head of policy, Sarah Lambert, said the three-month waiting time target for a diagnosis was “quite a challenging target and for that reason I think it is a good thing”. She said a NAS survey found over a third of people waited three years or more for a diagnosis, although some of these might have raised concerns about their condition, but not yet been referred.

She said: “The quality standard will tell local commissioners this is the standard we need to be driving for. We are pleased it exists, but the proof will be how it is implemented. That will be a challenge for services, but it is a challenge they really need to take up. We know there are areas doing this well and they face the same financial problems as everyone else. This is a challenge to local authorities and NHS to work creatively on this issue and see there are cost savings if they do it right”.

The recommendation that all people diagnosed with autism should be referred to specialist teams comes just after Nottinghamshire council carried out a consultation, which ran until 17 January, on whether to disband its autism team as part of a money saving overhaul of services for younger adults.

Lambert said: “We are seeing a potential reversal in Nottinghamshire, but there are other areas looking to develop those teams. It is not all bad, but social care cuts are having a significant impact.”

She said the wider integration of health and social care could encourage the development of specialist autism teams because both health and social care would benefit from the savings generated.

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