New toolkit offers ‘succinct’ overview to aid autism diagnosis

Evelyn Lewin

14/01/2021 12:20:22 PM

Consistent standards are needed to diagnose the condition, and one expert has told newsGP ‘it has to be used’.

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The toolkit aims to make assessing and diagnosing autism easier for clinicians.

Diagnosing autism can be a particularly challenging endeavour for any clinician.
‘Everyone struggles with it,’ Professor Andrew Whitehouse, Autism CRC Research Strategy Director and Chair of the National Guideline Research Executive Committee, told newsGP.
‘Because there’s no clear biological marker for autism – we diagnose autism based on behavioural characteristics and that in itself is a subjective exercise – it’s a really tricky thing.’
Because consistent standards are needed to assist clinicians in making a diagnosis, in 2018, Autism CRC created the National Guideline for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism to address such issues.
Professor Whitehouse says the creation of that resource was a ‘critical step’ in helping health professionals assess and diagnose autism and that it has made a significant difference.
‘It was welcomed and it was broadly adopted,’ he said.
Autism CRC have now released a National Guideline Implementation Toolkit, designed to help clinicians ‘upskill and deliver the recommendations in the guideline’.
The toolkit includes videos, fact sheets, a clinical practice audit tool, template forms and training information.
Resources are also available for individuals undergoing assessment, along with parents and caregivers.
Professor Whitehouse says the development of this toolkit is another crucial step in helping clinicians by providing a ‘succinct’ overview of the guideline recommendations, with a ‘clear step-by-step process’ for assessment.
‘It’s really important that this document [the National Guideline] doesn’t become some esoteric piece of work that sits on a shelf gathering dust; it has to be used,’ he said.
‘If it does sit on a shelf gathering dust then it’s failed, and the most important thing is implementing that where the rubber hits the road and often that’s in GP clinics, in allied health clinics, [and] in specialist clinics as well.
‘The whole point of the toolkit is to make the implementation smoother.
‘So all of a sudden we don’t just have a document; we have a way [that] people can appraise how they’re going in their existing diagnostic standards and how they feel they need further information or further education.
‘Then there is a very easy toolkit that can be used to provide them that information and that’s really the point of it.
‘This is not just a document; there are ways we can actually put this into practice right now.’
Professor Whitehouse hopes this resource will be of particular value for GPs.
‘GPs in particular have a really challenging task because they’re almost always the first point of call for families who have concerns about their child, or if an individual has concerns about themselves,’ he said.
‘And so for GPs who have to be across so much [information], it’s really important that there is a basic understanding of what is autism, and how do we actually appraise autism to go through the formal diagnostic procedures.’
This issue is of particular importance considering the rising rates of autism diagnosis in Australia.
In 2018, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) revised its autism prevalence rates from 1 in 100 people to an estimated 1 in 70 across Australia.
They state that equates to an estimated 40% increase ‘or around 353,880 people’.
At the time, Aspect CEO Adrian Ford noted these increasing rates did not necessarily mean that more people have autism than previously thought.
‘Autism is not necessarily on the rise in Australia,’ Mr Ford said.
‘We are likely getting better at recognising and diagnosing autism in people of all ages.’
Professor Whitehouse says the release of this new toolkit should further assist the diagnostic process.
‘The main takeaway message is that the diagnostic standards are gathering pace across Australia and it’s so important – not just for your own practice, but for patients – that we use these standards that are consistent across Australia,’ he said.
He says GPs have to know ‘so much, with so little time’ and therefore require easy access to relevant information that is simple to implement.
‘And that’s what the toolkit provides,’ he said.
‘It’s the glue between the document and your practice.’
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