NICE calls for team approach to autism

Guidance recently published by NICE - the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence - recommends that local multidisciplinary autism teams are set up to improve the diagnosis and assessment of children and young people with autism.

The aim is to enable healthcare professionals to work together with schools, social care, the voluntary sector and other key services which can offer useful insight into this condition. This is to ensure that children and teenagers with possible autism, as well as their parents or carers, receive the appropriate care and support they need.

At least 1 in 100 children under the age of three years has autism. This rising prevalence has increased demand for diagnostic services for children and young people of all ages in the health service. However, levels of understanding among healthcare professionals vary greatly across the UK. Making a diagnosis of autism can be difficult as there are lots of possible signs and symptoms, as well as coexisting conditions with similar features, such as intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The multidisciplinary autism teams should lead on the referral and diagnosis of individuals with possible autism, and should include a clinical or educational psychologist as well as, a paediatrician, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a speech and language therapist and occupational therapist. The teams should undertake diagnostic assessments where appropriate, and advise healthcare professionals about referrals.

It is estimated that around 70 per cent of people who have autism will have a co-existing condition.

Every autism diagnosis should include an assessment of social and communication skills and behaviours through interaction with and observation of the child or young person, and consideration of any coexisting conditions. A profile of the child's or young person's strengths, skills, impairments and needs should be developed during their assessment. With consent, this profile can be shared with those involved in the child's education to help ensure the assessment will contribute to the child or young person's individual education plan and needs-based management plan.

To help put this guidance into practice, NICE has produced a range of support tools, including signs and symptoms tables for children of preschool age, primary school age and secondary school age.

NICE has also published an online Pathway on autism in children and young people with links to all related guidance, tools and resources for implementation and information for patients and the public.