Say hello to the College's new Autism Champion
12 May, 2021
Hello and welcome to the world of the College's Autism Champion! I’m planning to write a blog post every few months to keep you updated on the work of the College in the field of autism.
I’m just a couple of weeks into the College Autism Champion role and it has been a bit of a whirlwind so far. I’ve never had a formal role with the College before and there is a whole new set of structures to get one’s head around.
The previous Autism Champion Dr Ian Davidson (no relation! – even though we are both from Northern Ireland, where of course everyone knows everyone else) has been tremendously helpful in showing me the ropes and sharing his wisdom, as have Tom Berney and Peter Carpenter, respectively the outgoing and incoming chair of the Neurodevelopmental Psychiatry Special Interest Group.
Ian has achieved a huge amount in his nearly five years in the role, including updating autism CPD for psychiatrists, heading up a national autism training program for psychiatrists, and lobbying for improved autism services with many and varied VIPs, up to and including the head of NHS England.
Perhaps the biggest achievement though of the last few years is the increase in visibility for autism throughout the psychiatric profession. When I started as a psych trainee in North Yorkshire 16 years ago, autism was pretty much seen as the domain of specialist services, and not something general psychiatrists ever gave much thought to.
I first got interested in autism when as a Senior House Officer (remember them!?) I was asked to see a patient with Asperger syndrome, and realised I didn’t know the first thing (or the second thing, or indeed the third thing) about Asperger syndrome.
After learning a bit more about neurodevelopmental conditions, I realised that here was a whole new vista of psychiatry. And because autism is strongly associated with a wide range of mental health problems, and can drastically influence how patients present, I came to firmly believe that to be a good general psychiatrist it’s essential to have a decent working knowledge of autism.
Attitudes have changed a lot in the intervening years. Now in conversations with colleagues it is rare indeed to come across psychiatrists who profess that ‘autism isn’t my business’, or claim that ‘ADHD doesn’t exist’. There is a great appetite from mental health professionals to learn more about autism and neurodevelopmental conditions.
This is particularly true for trainees – in my adult autism service in Leeds we have a constant stream of higher trainees asking to do special interest placements.
Despite this progress, more needs to be done. There are unacceptably long waiting times for autism assessments across most of the country. Autistic patients continue to report difficulty accessing appropriate mental health services, and reasonable adjustments aren’t always put in place.
Perhaps more than any other condition, autism cuts across everything we do as a College and as a profession. It doesn’t matter whether you work in CMHT, inpatients, CAMHS, ID, forensics…whatever your job, you will come across lots of patients with autism. My core message is that autism should be the business of every psychiatrist.
You can help by checking out the neurodevelopmental pages on the College website, which contain excellent resources including the College guide to assessing for autism. You could also sign up for an autism CPD e-learning module, or one of the ND SIGs conferences (I can vouch that they are invariably of fantastic quality).
And in your day-to-day practice, be alert for the possibility of autism, and remember to ask autistic patients about any reasonable adjustments they might need. Even relatively small actions like dimming the lights can make a huge difference for autistic people. For my part, over the next few weeks, I will be focusing on pulling together a new autism working group within the College.
The aim is to have representation from across the faculties and devolved nations so we can develop a shared agenda on autism matters.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this blog post (I know how busy you all are especially in these COVID times). I’ll continue to update it with the latest news from the Championing Autism program, so stay tuned…