A report claims that 80% of doctors need more training and guidance to identify the signs of autism.
According to a study by the National Audit Office (NAO), half of the 400,000 adults in England with autism may be falling through the gaps because they do not have a learning disability, and services mostly cater for illness, physical or learning disabilities.
A survey of 1,000 GPs found that eight out of 10 said they did not think they had the necessary training to manage people with autism effectively.
They also said that they did not know where to refer people with autism due to a lack of specific services dedicated to the condition.
A further 64% said that they referred adults with suspected high-functioning autism to adult mental health services, and 19% to learning disability services, even though they are not centred on their condition.
Only 10% reported that they would refer them to a specialised autism diagnostic service.
The study, called Supporting People with Autism through Adulthood, said: "Providing specialised support could improve outcomes for this group of people and their carers, and potentially enhance value for money, as the costs of establishing such support could be outweighed over time by overall savings."
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"The present lack of provision for adults with autism means that at best they face a lifetime of dependency. At worst they will lunge from crisis to crisis, falling into the gap between mental health and disability care. The NAO report outlines the economic benefits of improved identification rates – an increase of just 8% could lead to savings of £67m a year. The financial sense of better provision is something the third sector – and the autism and learning disabilities charity, HOPE (www.helphope.org.uk) – has highlighted for some time. By estimating the monetary savings achieved through increased understanding and provision, the NAO report could be the catalyst for improving the lives of people with autism. Alarmingly, the report reveals that less than one fifth (18%) of local authorities and NHS trusts were able to give precise numbers of adults with low-functioning autism. This is a worrying statistic, as this group's level of need on the autistic spectrum is so high. I hope to see greater collaboration between local authorities and PCTs as a result of this report" – Caroline Bell, Managing Director, HOPE