70 years of the NHS - 1948-2008 

The National Health Service launched 70 years ago today. We’re marking this historic moment with a series of blogs, which will explore autistic people’s experiences of the NHS and what we think the future should hold for health and care services. The first is from Mark Lever, our Chief Executive. 

Mark LeverThe NHS’ 70th birthday is a huge moment. It’s an opportunity to celebrate its remarkable achievements and to talk about the health and social care services we want to see in the future. Autistic people must be part of this conversation. 

We’ve come a long way from 70 years ago when autism was not recognised, resulting in many autistic people being misdiagnosed, written off and hidden away in institutions. Now, almost everyone has heard of autism. And, thanks to 2009's ground-breaking Autism Act, there are legal duties on health and care services to identify the needs of autistic people and to support them.

But research suggests that autistic people continue to have significantly poorer physical and mental health than the general public – and may be at greater risk of dying early. 

This is unacceptable. The Government’s current Mandate to NHS England rightly tasks the health service with ending this inequality. Making this happen will require bold action, across every tier of health and care services.

What is autism?

More than 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic, meaning there are around 600,000 autistic people in England. Autism is a lifelong disability which means someone sees, hears and feels in a different, often more intense way to other people, which can make the world an overwhelming place. 

Every autistic person is different and many people also have a learning disability, mental health problems or other conditions. With understanding and tailored support, we’ve seen how autistic people can live full and rewarding lives – whether in school, work or living as independently as possible. 

Where are we now?

Like anyone else, autistic people need health and care services, like GPs, pharmacies and hospitals. But far too many are unable to access these vital services and their physical and mental health problems go untreated. These barriers can usually be addressed with better training for professionals, so they ‘get’ autism and can adapt care accordingly. We have tips on our website, including a downloadable ‘Hospital Passport’ to help communications between autistic people and health staff, and helped the RCGP to develop an autism toolkit.

There are also autism-specific services, starting with a referral for diagnosis. Many autistic people describe their diagnosis as life-changing. It can explain years of feeling different and help unlock crucial advice and support. Yet, research suggests that, on average, children wait over three and a half years and adults around two years for a diagnosis after first raising concerns with professionals.

What needs to happen?

We first need to make sure that the appropriate autism diagnostic services are available to people in their area and that there’s good post-diagnostic support. Where there are excessive waiting times, commissioners must act and develop new services or add capacity to existing ones.  

Understanding is at the heart of all that needs to change. It tells commissioners and professionals what services are needed in each area and what adjustments can help. As well as the clear moral argument, economic modelling from the National Audit Office shows that identifying and supporting autistic people early will also save the public purse money. 

Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Autism Act and the Government will be reviewing the resulting adult autism strategy and statutory guidance. This is a great opportunity to work with autistic people and families to finally address this health inequality. Health and care professionals can contribute to this by looking at their services and thinking about whether they meet autistic people’s needs. 

Autistic people have a huge amount to contribute. Better public understanding and improved health and care services will unleash this potential.

Read our information and advice about accessing health and care services.

*This blog has been reworked from an article published earlier this year in Public Sector Executive magazine.

Read Emily Swia​tek’s NHS70 blog

Read Isabelle Garnett’s NHS70 blog