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Autism and Primary Care: Introduction


Autism is a lifelong, developmental disorder that affects just over 1 in 100 people. Autism affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.

Individuals on the autism spectrum vary enormously from each other but they all share the two 'core' features of autism:

  • persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction. For example, they may find it hard to begin or carry on a conversation, they may not understand social rules such as how far to stand from somebody else, or they may find it difficult to make friends
  • restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities. For example, they may develop an overwhelming interest in something, they may follow inflexible routines or rituals, they may make repetitive body movements, or they may be hypersensitive to certain sounds.

More information: Autism


People on the autism spectrum face many challenges on a day to day basis. For example, they may find it difficult to communicate with other people or to socialise with them. And they may have additional conditions, such as epilepsy or gastro-intestinal problems, which bring their own issues.

Many people on the autism spectrum are likely to find your surgery a confusing and intimidating place, especially if they have not been there before or if they had an unpleasant experience on a previous visit. (See Making your practice accessible)

More information: Challenges

The role of primary care staff

GPs and other primary care staff have a key role in ensuring that patients on the autism spectrum (and any carers) have equitable access to health care. They also have an important role in signposting relevant services and resources and in highlighting the latest evidence-based practice.


There is no specific biomarker or diagnostic test for autism. Diagnosis is made on the basis of the presence of characteristic behaviours. If you suspect that someone may be on the autism spectrum and they do not have a diagnosis you should consider a referral to the local diagnostic team.

More information: You can find out more about the diagnostic process on the main Research Autism website


There is no cure for autism but there are some interventions which can help. In most cases, the treatment for medical problems is the same as it is for anyone else, although it may need to be adapted to meet the specific needs of the autistic individual. So, for example, NICE recommends that CBT for the treatment of anxiety may need to be adapted for autistic people using 'a more concrete and structured approach with a greater use of written and visual information (which may include worksheets, thought bubbles, images and 'tool boxes').

More information: Interventions

Making your practice more accessible

There are a number of simple steps (reasonable adjustments) you can take to make your practice more accessible to people on the autism spectrum (and their families and carers). For example, you can make sure their diagnosis is coded as a significant active problem on the records, you can make early/late appointments or longer appointments, and you can provide somewhere quiet to wait or allow someone to wait outside and then call them in.

More information: Key Information

Reliable sources of information

There are many interventions which are specifically desined to help people on the autism spectrum. Regrettably some of these interventions are scientifically unfeasible, potentially harmful or both. For these reasons you should only use reliable sources of information (such as NICE, RCGP and Research Autism - all of which are accredited to the NHS Information Standard) when researching these interventions or recommending them to other people.

More information: clinical guidance, RCGP autism website, Research Autism website, NHS Information Standard website

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                          Updated 21 January 2016


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