Autistic people and their families have told us that developing better ways of detecting and treating mental health difficulties is a key research priority for them. 

We’re funding research to design a practical and useful way of diagnosing anxiety and depression in autistic people with a learning disability who speak few or no words.


Explaining the need for this project

Many people with a learning disability have untreated mental health conditions because it's difficult to diagnose them. Learning disability affects intellect and is sometimes referred to as intellectual disability. 

Some autistic people with a learning disability find it hard to explain their feelings and experiences because they speak few or no words. This means doctors have to rely on changes in their behaviour to assess them for mental health problems. But because these changes in behaviour are also characteristic of their autism or indicate pain it can be difficult to work out which ones might point to a mental health condition. 

That means autistic people and their parents or carers often struggle to access the right mental health care and therapies through their local health services.

The research process

Chris Oliver and his team are designing a practical way of diagnosing anxiety and depression in autistic people who speak few or no words. They are developing an assessment that will take doctors less than 20 minutes to complete (if the autistic person is accompanied by someone who knows them well for example a carer or family member).  

The team will

  • interview families and carers
  • watch video footage to identify behavioural signs of anxiety and depression
  • run a large questionnaire study
  • develop an assessment tool based on the questionnaire study data
  • assess autistic people who speak few or no words using the tool to see whether it can reliably measure anxiety and depression

Identifying behavioural signs of anxiety and low mood will allow the team to

  • distinguish symptoms of anxiety and depression from those of pain or autism
  • help doctors measure whether therapies for anxiety and depression are working in autistic people who have a learning disability

How this project is making a difference

Finding ways to identify anxiety and depression and ensuring timely and effective support will ensure better care and wellbeing for autistic people who also have a learning disability. 

The new assessment tool will give health professionals a reliable way of assessing autistic people who speak few or no words during their first appointment. At the same time the work is raising awareness of the health inequalities faced by this vulnerable group of autistic people.