Autistic people are consistently reported as experiencing poor physical and mental health, along with reduced life expectancy, compared to non-autistic people. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how individuals learn, behave, and communicate with others. While there are no physical symptoms, an ASD diagnosis is associated with poorer health outcomes and reduced life expectancy. This is due to the multiple social disadvantages and inequalities that autistic people face in healthcare settings.
A recent study by Doherty and colleagues, published in the British Medical Journal, aimed to identify self-reported barriers to healthcare among 507 autistic people. A total of 62% of the adults included in the study reported difficulty making appointments by telephone, 56% reported a fear of not being understood, and 53% found it hard to communicate with their doctor. This highlights that communication and anxiety are both significant barriers. A total of 51% of the participants said that they found the waiting room environment challenging and sensorily overstimulating. Implementing arrangements that facilitate flexibility within practice, as well as leaving time to process information within consultations, could be extremely beneficial for those who find attending appointments overwhelming. Ensuring that all staff within healthcare settings are equipped to support autistic people and make their experience easier is of the utmost importance.
Since 2009, the Autism Act has been implemented in the UK to combat these inequalities. In 2018, the Department of Health and Social Care refreshed the strategy, making increasing life expectancy an overarching health policy adjective. However, in late 2018, 80% of autistic people reported difficulty visiting a general practitioner, compared to 37% of non-autistic people, suggesting ASD patients still face significant barriers to healthcare. In 2021, a five-year autism research strategy was introduced throughout the National Health Service (NHS) with the intention of including autism as a clinical priority and with the overall aim of driving improvements in autistic people’s health. GlobalData epidemiologists anticipate that as the UK’s health system becomes more inclusive to autistic people, it is likely that the mental and physical health of people with ASD will improve and thus improve life expectancy. It is also likely that as autistic people feel more comfortable in healthcare settings and practitioners are better equipped to diagnose autism, the number of diagnoses will increase, and an increase in the prevalence of ASD will follow.
GlobalData epidemiologists initially forecast that the diagnosed prevalent cases of ASD in the UK would decrease from 554,000 cases in 2022 to 539,000 cases in 2030. However, it is likely that the prevalent cases of ASD will surpass current forecast estimates over this period as ASD becomes a clinical priority across the NHS. Creating a calmer, more flexible environment for people with ASD in healthcare settings will likely improve their willingness to attend appointments and engage in medical care at a much faster rate than they would in a stressful setting. This will not only increase the number of people being diagnosed with ASD but will also improve the general mental and physical health of those who have already been diagnosed.