CPsychI Autism Special Interest Group mark World Autism Month
In honour of World Autism Month, the College Autism Special Interest Group have put together a number of articles exploring the mental health needs of autistic people and the potential barriers to access of the range supports and psychiatry services that they may require throughout the lifespan.
These articles will be published across the month of April, the Autism SIG have answered some questions on the work of their group and the ways in which psychiatry and the needs of autistic people intersect.
Who makes up the Autism Special Interest Group (SIG) and what is their main focus?
The College Autism SIG is made of up Consultant and Trainee Psychiatrists who are working or have an interest in the area of of autism and mental health service provision, as well as an autistic representative from Ireland’s National Autism Charity AsIAm, and is focused on raising the awareness of mental health difficulties of autistic people and their need for appropriate, timely and accessible psychiatry services that can meet their needs.
Do autistic people have increased mental health needs?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects up to 1.5% of the population. It is seen as a disability, particularly impacting on social and communication ability, patterns of interest and sensory motor sensitivities. Autistic people need supports and adaptations to access education, employment and to engage fully in society. A very large proportion of autistic people also have co-occurring mental health conditions, estimated to be 50-60% in some studies. Typically these include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood and anxiety disorders, social anxiety and social phobia. More seriously, autistic people are up to 9 times more likely to die prematurely by suicide, which affects autistic females disproportionately.
Can autistic people access support for their mental health needs?
Autistic people experience a number of barriers in accessing supports for their mental health needs. They may have greater difficulty talking about their mental health and they don’t always show how they are feeling in a way that neurotypical people understand. As a result other people, including health care professionals, may not notice their mental health difficulties. Sometimes it is difficult for mental health professionals to differentiate between autism and mental health needs which can lead to their mental health problems being viewed as ‘just autism’. This can mean that an autistic person may face barriers in getting referred to a psychiatry service. Also, some mental health professionals report that they have difficulties knowing how to communicate well with an autistic person.
What does the Autism SIG plan to do to address these barriers?
Our Autism SIG is planning a large survey of mental health professionals regarding their knowledge, awareness and training needs in relation to autism. We hope that this can inform future frameworks for training in psychiatry. We also aim to raise awareness and discussion regarding key issues that arise for autistic people in the context of psychiatry services. We have regular contributions to the College academic programme to raise different issues such as autism and mental health, autism and COVID and autism and the law.
Finally, we are the first SIG in the College to have an autistic representative from Ireland’s main autism charity, AsIAm, Mr. Adam Harris. We are delighted that he is a regular contributor to our discussions.
What’s the Autism SIG’s key message about autism and mental health?
Our key message is that autistic people’s mental health needs are just as important as other services users. We want psychiatry services to focus on how we can best meet the needs of autistic people to promote better mental health and outcomes.
To conclude we would like leave you with this quote from Mr Adam Harris, Founder and Chief Executive of AsIAm, Ireland’s National Autism Charity, and member of the College Autism Special interest Group:
“The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland Special Interest Group on autism is doing vital work in sharing their expertise and clinical experience to try and shift the dial on access to mental health services for autistic people both from a service design and practitioner knowledge perspective. It is great to have the opportunity to support this work and I think it says a lot about the positive, solutions-focused outlook of the psychiatrists involved in the group that they have been so keen to learn directly from the lived experiences of autistic people in their work. The shortfalls and barriers to access in mental health services for autistic people could be described as nothing less than a crisis and it is essential that all involved in mental health services work together to create appropriate, supportive pathways of support for our community”.