National Autism team

The National Autism team oversees a set of NHS Long Term Plan commitments designed to improve NHS services to enable autistic people to live healthier, happier, longer lives.

We work closely with a wide number of stakeholder partners, including people with lived experience to ensure co-production is at the heart of what the National Autism Team do. Our research team also supports our programme of work to ensure clinical practice advice is underpinned by clinical evidence where available.

The National Autism Team is part of the mental health, learning disability and autism programme in NHS England. We are strategically led by a Deputy Director and a senior programme manager overseeing work priorities and supporting programme managers. Clinical leadership is provided by three National Speciality Advisers, with backgrounds in psychiatry, psychology and general practice.  Each of the clinical advisors is supported by a senior project manager to lead the three areas of work within the programme which are:

1) Improving outcomes in all-age autism assessment pathways:

Demand for autism assessments has risen exponentially over the past 20 years and continues to rise.

In April 2023, we published two documents setting out guidance for integrated care boards about achieving the best outcomes with existing funding:

The framework and operational guidance were both co-produced with a wide range of stakeholders including people with lived experience (autistic people, their families and carers), clinicians, service managers, commissioners and researchers. Since publication, we have been supporting systems and services to identify where there are challenges for implementation and how they might overcome these.

In order to improve access to the assessment pathway we are working with external stakeholders to understand the screening and triage tools / approaches currently employed by referrers and assessment services to inform decisions about referrals.

We are currently working with experts with lived experience to produce accessible formats of the operational guidance for autistic people and their families and carers.

In collaboration with professional bodies and a range of health professionals, we are working to identify the future workforce required to support improved access to the autism assessment pathway.

To ensure a better understanding of variation in autism assessment waiting times across England, we continue to work with our analytics colleagues to drive improvements in the quality and completeness of reported data.

2) Reducing health inequalities:

Autistic people experience inequalities in a range of health conditions including cardiovascular disease, epilepsy and mental health.

Supporting autistic people to access health services through making reasonable adjustments to the way services are delivered, is a requirement as outlined in the Equality Act 2010.

This can include adaptations to the therapy being offered to better meet the needs of an autistic person. NHS England is committed to reducing health inequalities amongst autistic people by working with primary care and partner organisations such as local authorities to improve access to all health services.

NHS England is involved in several initiatives to support improvements in access to health care services, including:

  • Working with primary care to support greater knowledge of autism and the needs of autistic people across primary care. This includes practical ways to ensure autistic people are encouraged to access their local primary care services.
  • Improving the appropriateness of mental health interventions, such as psychological therapies, to better meet the needs of autistic people.
  • Supporting autism specific research and development, including the development and testing of an autism health check, in line with the commitment set out in the Long Term Plan (2019) “Action will be taken to tackle the cause of morbidity and preventable deaths in people with a learning difficulty & autistic people, including piloting an autism health check.”
  • Using learning from the LeDeR work (learning from lives and deaths) of people with a learning disability and autistic people to inform our work.
  • Working with the analytics team at NHS England to develop a comprehensive data dashboard to address issues of accessing screening initiatives such as colorectal cancer.
  • Working with autistic people and their families to determine the acceptability of having an autism register to improve the support provided to autistic people accessing primary care.
  • Exploring the feasibility of delivering a joint autism, mental health and learning disability health check.

3: Improving the quality of and access to mental health treatment and support:

Autistic people have higher incidents of mental ill-health than their non-autistic counterparts, yet they face many barriers to accessing care. When autistic people can access care, the care that they receive often does not meet their needs.

In December 2023 we published National guidance on Meeting the Needs of Autistic Adults in Mental Health Services. The guidance aims to help Integrated Care Boards across England to work with all partners, particularly those in provider services, to provide high-quality assessment, intervention and support to autistic adults who have any mental health symptoms or conditions.

It outlines ten principles which will help mental health services and integrated care boards provide appropriate mental health support in the community, with the aim of reducing the number of admissions of autistic adults to mental health inpatient units.

The guidance states that all mental health services should:

  1. ensure services are accessible and acceptable to autistic adults
  2. support access to meaningful activity
  3. facilitate timely access to autism assessment, when clinically indicated
  4. use evidence to guide intervention choice
  5. assess and proportionately manage risk
  6. monitor and minimise the use of restrictive practices
  7. support cohesive transitions
  8. consider the physical health needs of people accessing mental health services.

And to achieve this, all ICBs should:

  1. develop a local commissioning strategy to ensure appropriately adjusted and tailored mental health provision is available for autistic adults, informed by local and national statistical data
  2. develop and maintain a well-trained workforce.

We engaged with clinicians, policy makers and people with lived experience to develop the guidance.

We have also worked with our partners and people with lived experience to develop a sensory-friendly resource pack which includes resources to support adjustments to the sensory environment in NHS settings.

We are utilising data to understand the variation in autistic people’s access to mental health care in different geographies and in different age and gender brackets and have made this data available to integrated care boards and systems. Access to this data by systems supports discussions around barriers to access and the identification of opportunities for improvement.

In 2024/25 we will be taking forward work in relation to improving provision in the community for the top reasons that autistic people are admitted to mental health hospitals. These include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Severe Mental Illness
  • Personality disorder

National Autism Research Team:

To address the health inequalities experienced by autistic people, the NHS in England must ensure that health policy and clinical decisions about the care provided to autistic people are consistently based on the best available scientific evidence. In March 2022, the Five-year NHS autism research strategy for England was published in response to the inclusion of autism as a priority in the NHS Long Term Plan. This research strategy sets out the first steps that need to be taken to build better evidence-based physical and mental healthcare for autistic people in England. The National Autism Research Team was formed in 2022 to oversee the implementation of the research strategy.

The aims of the five-year NHS autism research strategy for England are to:

  1. Determine which areas of NHS autism service provision in England are based on reliable evidence and which areas require further research.
  2. Ensure there is a better fit between the evidence produced and the evidence gaps in the NHS in England.
  3. Facilitate the use of the best current evidence when making decisions about autism services provided by or paid for by the NHS in England.
  4. Improve the mechanisms to robustly evaluate the effectiveness of policy and funding decisions about NHS-provided healthcare for autistic people in England.

The research strategy also outlines five pillars of action for improving healthcare provision and outcomes for autistic people, focused on engaging with evidence from scientific research to inform decision-making.

The five pillars of strategic action are to:

  1. build an evidence culture in NHS autism services
  2. appropriate funding for autism research in England
  3. answer relevant research questions
  4. raise the quality of research
  5. using evidence in national autism health policy.

To achieve policy ambitions, including the NHS Long Term Plan commitment to reduce health inequalities for autistic people, policies should always be rooted in evidence and routinely evaluated to ensure real-world impact on improving health care for autistic people.

Our embedded National Autism Research Team supports the use of the best current evidence in the National Autism Team across all three workstreams, as well as in the wider Learning Disability and Autism Programme. The research team also facilitates links between the programme and researchers and research funders to support the work of the programme. To work towards increasing the amount of evidence available to support the work of the National Autism Team and the wider Learning Disability and Autism Programme, the research team also identifies evidence needs to communicate to funding organisations and researchers, commissions projects, and provides support with commissioning projects across the National Autism Team.

National Autism Programme, cross cutting themes:

  • The rising demand for services requires a workforce that is fit for the future, and able to care for and support autistic people. We are working with the Workforce, Training and Education Directorate within NHS England to explore opportunities to identify the necessary workforce and their training needs.
  • We have developed an Autistic people’s healthcare information strategy to help to improve the information that is available about the health of autistic people and the healthcare received by autistic people in England.
  • We have developed the Five-year NHS autism research strategy for England, to ensure that good quality research and innovation underpins everything we do.