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Greater staff training ‘critical’ to closing health gap for autistic people

If NHS England is going to close the health gap for autistic people it is “critical” that all healthcare staff are trained to treat autistic patients, the Westminster Commission on Autism has said in its final report.

The report says that NHS England should produce a resource pack for CCGs with examples of best practice and advice on increasing training of all staff; the health secretary should write to CCGs emphasising that they have a statutory obligation to make training available; and Health Education England should ensure that they only commission training which includes autism awareness.

It noted that the current lack of training leads to perceived poor understanding of autism and the feeling among autistic people that their health treatment is unsatisfactory.

The commission, chaired by Barry Sheerman MP, noted that the statutory guidance associated with the Autism Act states that autism-awareness has to be included in all equality and diversity training for health and social care staff and ensure that both general awareness and specialist autism training is provided on an ongoing basis

However, in the most recent self-assessment of progress against the strategy, only 29% of local areas rated themselves as ‘green’, meaning that training was available to all staff. This suggests that many local areas are failing to comply fully with the Autism Act.

In March, charity Autistica announced that it was launching a five-year programme to investigate why autistic adults have a shorter life expectancy – 16 years on average less than their peers. Autistic people also have a heightened risk of mental illness and suicide.

Sheerman said: “This is not a critique of the NHS. This report seeks to highlight what good-quality, person-centred healthcare, tailored to the needs of those on the autistic spectrum, can achieve. It is a call for ensuring equal access to quality healthcare for all on the autistic spectrum and to make this widespread and institutionalised.

“If we fail to take immediate, sensible steps to improve access to healthcare for autistic people we may lose many more to unemployment, mental health issues, poor quality of life and even premature death.”

CQC assessment framework

The report also says that the CQC should include autism-specific questions in their assessment frameworks.

A CQC spokesperson told NHE that the inspection body now plans to implement the recommendation, saying: “We worked with the Westminster Commission on Autism to provide evidence for their inquiry and we are committed to taking forward the recommendations that the report makes.”

In addition, the report said that consistent diagnosis-coding should be used in GP practices to establish a better data profile of autism; autistic people should receive annual health checks; NHS England should appoint a national clinical director for autism; and the Department for Health should launch an autism and health innovation fund.

Sarah Lambert, head of policy and public affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “Today’s report raises concerns that many autistic people are struggling to access essential health care. This is unacceptable. We urge the Government and NHS England to consider the recommendations carefully and take action so autistic people start receiving the health care they need.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We have made monumental strides towards improving the lives of people with autism in this country and are determined to make further progress. We are working alongside people with autism, and their carers, to make sure they have access to healthcare with adjustments made for their conditions.”

NHS England recently established a Quality Checkers Programme, where patients with learning difficulties inspect services to judge how accessible they are.

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