Although autism is not a mental health condition, nearly three-quarters of autistic people have current or previous poor mental health such as stress, anxiety, or depression. This project will review studies that have tested treatments for mental health challenges to help us understand which treatments might be most successful for autistic people.

What is the project about?

We know that death by suicide is seven times higher in autistic people than the general population. About two-thirds of autistic people without intellectual disabilities have suicidal thoughts and one-third plan or attempt suicide. Researchers are still trying to find out how best to prevent or treat poor mental health in autistic people. In fact, autistic people, their families, and professionals who support them have identified that research related to poor mental health in autism is their most important research priority. Despite this, we still don’t know how to best treat mental health conditions in autistic people. This project hopes to take steps to change that.

What are researchers doing?

The researchers are reviewing trials for treatments and interventions that focus on supporting mental health in autistic people. They are looking at randomised control trials (RCTs). These are research studies in which people are allocated at random to receive one of several clinical interventions. One of these interventions is the standard of comparison or "control". The control may be a standard practice, a placebo, or no intervention at all.

When conducted well, RCTs can provide the best information about how well a treatment works. More than 20 RCTs have been performed to find out how well treatments work compared to other treatments in preventing or treating poor mental health in autistic people. The team are reviewing the benefits and harms of different treatments by conducting a thorough search for published and unpublished studies on this issue (‘systematic review and meta-analysis’).

Current existing high-quality systematic reviews compare only two treatments at a time. In this project, the researchers are using advanced methods that allow them to compare many different treatments at the same time. This is known as ‘network meta-analysis’.

How will the project help?

This research study will help us to understand which treatments are most likely to effectively treat poor mental health in autistic people. This may have a knock-on effect on other aspects of autistic people's lives, such as improved employment. It will also identify where further research is needed.

How are Autistica supporting the project?

The researchers are committed to supporting autistic people to shape the project at every step. Through our Autistica Network, we are supporting autistic people to take part in data collection, management and steering committees, advisory group meetings, drafting a plain language report, and in disseminating the research findings.