Early diagnosis of autism “significantly improves” life outcomes, says Priory specialist

Date: 3rd April 2024

A leading Priory psychiatrist has said many patients he has treated would have had seen their life outcomes “significantly improved” had they received an earlier diagnosis of autism.

Dr Santosh Kumar, who specialises in treating autistic adults with mental health needs, said not receiving the right support from childhood can have profound implications on “every aspect” of a person’s life.

He spoke out at the start of World Autism Acceptance Week, which runs until Monday (08 April), and as the latest NHS data shows more than 170,000 people are waiting for an autism assessment in England, a 47% increase within a year.

“Autism is a condition that can affect behaviour, emotions and communication. It is something you’re born with and it lasts a lifetime; it’s not a medical condition. As such, people don’t require ‘treatment’ for autism but rather support to manage things a bit better,” Dr Kumar explained.

“An early diagnosis means young people will receive the right support from an early age which can make an enormous difference to every aspect of their life, from school to relationships to family life.”

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism spectrum condition (ASC), affects how people communicate and interact with the world. It is lifelong and categorised as a developmental condition as symptoms usually appear in the first two years of life.

More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, though research by University College London last year suggested the total autistic population in England alone could be over 1.2 million.

Dr Kumar, based at Priory Hospital Stockton Hall which is accredited by the National Autistic Society, regularly treats and supports adults who did not receive an early diagnosis and has seen the negative impact this can have for people in the long-term.

“At Priory we support autistic adults with highly complex mental health needs, including people who have been through the criminal justice system. We support patients who have ended up estranged from family or found themselves in harmful relationships. Only later in life have they received an autism diagnosis.

“I can say with high levels of confidence that for many of those people, an earlier diagnosis of autism would have significantly changed their life outcomes, enabled them to receive the right support at the right moments in their life, to celebrate their neurodivergence rather than struggle against it. Early diagnosis improves lives. It is that important.”

Dr Kumar praised increasing levels of autism awareness in society and the ability of parents to identify autistic behaviours, but warned delays in accessing assessments will prevent early intervention and possibly deter families from persisting in seeking a diagnosis.

“Greater levels of autism awareness in society, and in the medical profession, is a wonderful thing,” said Dr Kumar. “Awareness of autistic behaviour is much improved for boys, and increasingly now for girls too.

“Autism is part of who people are from childhood and parents today are much better at identifying autistic behaviours than in the past thanks to increased awareness. This means they can seek a diagnosis from a medical professional.

“The danger when it comes to long delays in accessing assessments is that it will prevent early intervention being possible and, at worst, could deter families from persisting in seeking a diagnosis and this could have significant long-term consequences.”

Priory, which is the UK’s largest independent provider of mental health and adult social care services, is helping to improve access to autism assessments by offering these across its network of wellbeing centres which are designed to provide access to care flexibly in central locations across the UK.

The assessments, conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists specifically trained in the field of autism diagnosis and support, can be arranged without a GP referral and include a comprehensive outcome report which provides recommendations for ongoing support.

John Day, a child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Southampton – one of the sites offering assessments – said the “psychological map” an assessment and diagnosis provides can lead to multiple improvements in a person’s life.

“A diagnosis provides a psychological map of understanding of where a person struggles and what they might now be able to do about it,” he explained. “It also improves their sense of identity, something that improves their sense of who they are, and this alone improves their mental health.

“Having a formal assessment and diagnosis also gives them something they can take to their employer/school to ask for support.”

He also warned people who seek therapy alone unaware they are neurodivergent – the term used to encompass differences in brain function including autism – having not been assessed means subsequent therapy may prove ineffective.

“I have found that people can often present for therapy unaware that they are neurodivergent and can have a high degree of functionality, which means their condition can be missed if a therapist they see is not trained in autism spectrum conditions and therapy might not be effective,” he explained.

“When it is identified immediately, this has a really positive effect for therapy and a profound effect on the individual and parents or families as it suddenly explains why they struggle in their lives where they do. They suddenly understand that there is nothing wrong with them per se, go back through their lives and have these little “aha” moments.

“Obviously the earlier in life assessment and diagnosis is carried out the better, otherwise they have years of struggle as a neurodivergent individual in a neurotypical world.”

Priory provides a range of support for people with autism to help them live their lives in the community, including residential services and supported living accommodation. For more information on Priory’s autism services including how and where to access the assessment service, visit www.priorygroup.com/mental-health/autism.


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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s largest independent provider of mental health and adult social care services. Priory treats more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across its nationwide network of sites. Priory also supports autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, the leading European provider of high-quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises: Priory in the UK with 290 facilities and 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people, MEDIAN in Germany with 120 facilities and 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients, and Hestia in Spain with 15 facilities and 2,100 beds caring for 11,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees across the group.

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