Latest NHS data shows sharp rise in waiting times for first autism appointment

Press release
15 December 2023

The College has raised concerns about a huge gap in NHS resources for specialist autism services. 

New data published by NHS England shows that between July and September 2023, people in England who had an appointment for suspected autism had, on average, waited almost ten months since their first referral. This compares to 2022, when on average, people waited for almost seven months to be seen.  

Between July and September 2023, children and young people who had an appointment for suspected autism had waited on average nine months (295 days) following their initial referral. Adults had faced an average waiting time of more than ten months (323 days) following their initial referral. 

During the same period in 2022, children and young people had waited, on average, for seven months (213 days) from the point of referral, while adults had waited for five months (142 days). 

Waiting for access to specialist autism services can have a particularly bad effect on children and young people, who may be relying on an autism diagnosis to receive much-needed special educational needs support. 

RCPsych also understands from reports it has received from psychiatrists that in some areas, people with mental health needs are being told to wait until their autism assessment has taken place before they can access services for co-existing mental illness. 

RCPsych is calling on the Government to bring forward urgent investment in community autism services, and to deliver on its ambition to increase the size of the medical workforce in hard-to-recruit specialisms, such as psychiatry. 

Dr Conor Davidson, Autism Champion at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:  

“Today’s data paints a stark picture of the problems that children and adults experience in securing an autism assessment in England. Such long waiting times only exacerbate existing mental illness for autistic people.

“It is also extremely concerning to hear reports of people being discouraged from accessing services whilst waiting for their assessment. Regardless of service pressure, autism, or suspected autism, must never be used as a reason to exclude people from mental health services. We know that when co-existing autism and mental illness are present, outcomes can be extremely poor without prompt access to effective diagnosis and treatment, with increased risk of self-harm and suicide being one of the consequences.  

“After facing such long waits for a diagnosis, it is important that people diagnosed with autism are offered follow-up support, so they do not struggle to navigate the impact of autism alone.  

“While today’s data is concerning, it provides a real opportunity to understand the scale of action needed to address the waits for assessments and treatment. We look forward to similar data being published in the future on ADHD so that we can understand the scale of the challenge in terms of diagnosis and treatment.  

“One thing is clear; we must address the huge gap in NHS resources to see and treat all those who are coming forward for autism assessments, as well as those who’ve already been waiting far too long.” 

See a list of autism and ADHD resources provided by our Neurodevelopmental Psychiatry Special Interest Group.


Mental health resources

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