Autistic people can face a range of additional challenges in their everyday lives. One of the most serious of these is the far greater likelihood that they will experience a mental health condition. Eight in ten autistic adults in the UK are estimated to experience mental health conditions, compared to one in six non-autistic adults.

One of the most common mental health conditions among autistic people is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is characterised by persistent, excessive worry about many different things at once. The effects of a disorder like GAD can be debilitating for the people who experience it - and autistic people are around three times more likely to experience GAD than the general population. Of the 585,000 autistic adults in the UK, 105,000 (18%) experience GAD. This is three times the rate of the 5.9% of the general population diagnosed with the same.

As symptoms of anxiety can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life – through symptoms such as feelings of worry or restlessness, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, and heart palpitations – it is imperative to find treatments that are better equipped to help autistic people manage their anxiety.

Yet autistic people experience a number of barriers to receiving the mental health support they need, and those barriers exist at every stage of the process of getting help, from diagnosis to treatment. For example, symptoms of anxiety can be wrongly attributed by medical professionals to autism rather than recognised as having a separate cause. Additionally, standard treatments for mental health conditions are not typically designed with autistic people in mind. Current NHS treatments for GAD are often language or emotion-based, such as talking or mindfulness therapies, which can directly conflict with the needs of some autistic people.

A new treatment could be effective in helping autistic people recover from GAD. ‘Aligning Dimensions of Interoceptive Experience’ (ADIE) was recently trialled in a study funded by MQ Mental Health Research. The treatment takes a different approach to the management of anxiety. It helps people recognise the physiological signals of anxiety more accurately. Since the original study, it has also been trialled on other populations and has been developed into a format which can be administered almost entirely without clinical oversight.

If this treatment were rolled out to autistic people who might be both experiencing and likely to seek treatment for anxiety, the improved quality of life they might experience could be valued at as much as £125-£170 million (1,700-2,300 QALYs). For each person recovering this is equivalent to between £21-£28,000 of wellbeing benefits. It is also worth noting that ADIE treatment is now being trialled on other groups of people, and that the potential costs of rolling out this intervention are not covered in this report.

Various sensitivity scenarios indicate that the benefits could cover a much wider range, but still suggest a significant overall impact. Better data, and thus more research, would help to narrow the range and better quantify the potential benefits of new treatments. Social sector organisations like MQ Mental Health Research could potentially facilitate further economic evaluations by both helping researchers to fill in some of these gaps in their own work, and by drawing attention to the paucity of data on mental health in autistic people more broadly.

Nevertheless, the data suggests great potential for ADIE treatment to support as many as 6,000 autistic people in the UK to recover from GAD, and live fuller, happier lives.

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