Birmingham Experts Launch Pioneering Autism Research

Leading researchers from Birmingham are today (25th October 2017) launching a major, new UK study into autism and mental health problems – and are calling for autistic people and their families to get involved.

The research is a collaboration between leading investigators at the Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Birmingham, Aston University, and leading UK autism research charity, Autistica.

An estimated 56,000 people in the West Midlands are autistic (1,2*) – and nearly eight in ten (79%) will experience a mental health problem (3).

The research will be the first in the UK to develop an assessment tool to distinguish emotional distress caused by anxiety and depression from distress caused by physical health problems, among minimally verbal autistic people with learning difficulties. Autistic people with learning difficulties are more than 40 times more likely to die from a neurological disorder than the general population – and twice as likely to commit suicide (4).

Commenting on the new research, which will be announced at an autism science talk in central Birmingham later today, Dr Jane Waite, Lecturer in Psychology, School of Life and Health Sciences at Aston University, and one of the study’s lead investigators, said: “People living with autism and their families have highlighted that managing mental health problems is their number one priority.  But, until now, the mental health needs of autistic people, particularly those with learning difficulties, have been seriously neglected due to a lack of research and support.”

Chris Oliver, Professor of Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Director of the Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, University of Birmingham, said: “People with learning difficulties may be unable to describe how they are feeling and others may think that changes in behaviour and emotions are caused by things other than anxiety and depression. It is therefore essential that we develop better tools to help us detect when autistic people are experiencing distress and mental health problems and ensure services include everyone and they receive timely and effective help.”

Autistica is urging the local autistic community to get directly involved in this and other planned UK research projects by signing up to its autism research network, Discover. Visit autistica.org.uk/take-part . Discover will link the local autistic community with the Birmingham investigators, as well as other top UK research centres.

Jon Spiers, chief executive of Autistica, said: “We are delighted to be working with the Cerebra Centre on this pioneering new research.  By helping more people sign up to take part in autism research projects, we can make sure research addresses the challenges that families and autistic people face, and provide them with the information, services and care that they need.”

Autistica, together with its research partners, aims to recruit 5,000 autistic people, their families and carers to Discover by the end of 2017.

Notes

About the Cerebra mental health study

A key objective of the study is to improve the identification of mental health problems in autistic people with learning difficulties, who currently represent over a third (38%) of the UK autistic population. This study focuses on designing a practical and effective assessment tool for use in the clinic to identify anxiety and depression in autistic people with learning difficulties. This important research is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham, Aston University, Coventry University, Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust, Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership NHS Trust and the leading UK autism research charity, Autistica.

About the Birmingham Science Talk

The announcement regarding the new Cerebra research will be made at the first of a series of autism events taking place in Birmingham during October and November hosted by Autistica in collaboration with Deutsche Bank. The events are free and anyone can attend. For further details on the talks including location and timings, click here: https://www.autistica.org.uk/get-involved/autism-talks

About autism

• Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions. The condition changes the way people communicate and experience the world around them. Every autistic person is different. Some are able to learn, live and work independently but many have learning differences or co-occurring health conditions that require specialist support.
• It is estimated that 1 in every 100 people in the UK is autistic.1,2
• Research suggests that the differences seen in autism are largely genetic, but environmental factors may also play a role.
• There’s currently no ‘cure’ for autism, and indeed that is not a priority for the autism community, but there are a range of specialist interventions that aim to improve communication skills and help with educational and social development.

About Autistica

Autistica is the UK’s leading autism research charity. Autistica’s research is guided by families and autistic individuals, with the aim of building longer, happier, healthier lives for all those living with autism. They support research into autism and related conditions to improve autistic people’s lives and develop new therapies and interventions. Since 2004, Autistica has raised over £12 million for autism research, funding over 40 world-class scientists in universities across the UK. For more information visit: https://www.autistica.org.uk/ Twitter @AutisticaUK

About the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.

About Cerebra

Cerebra is the charity that works with families who include children with brain conditions. They listen to them, they learn from them, they work with them. They carry out research, they design and innovate, they make and share. What they discover together makes everyone’s life better. For more information visit their website: www.cerebra.org.uk.

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston University has been always been a force for change. For 50 years the University has been transforming lives through pioneering research, innovative teaching and graduate employability success. Aston is renowned for its opportunity enabler through broad access and inspiring academics, providing education that is applied and has real impact on all areas of society, business and industry.

References

* Figure extrapolated from UK population data for West Midlands
1. Brugha, T. et al., (2011) Epidemiology of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Adults in the Community in England. Archives of General Psychiatry. 68 (5), 459-66.
2. Baird, G., et al., (2006) Prevalence of disorders of the autism spectrum in a population cohort of children in South Thames: the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP). Lancet 2006; 368: 210–15
3. Lever, A. G. & Geurts, H. M. (2016) Psychiatric Co-occurring Symptoms and Disorders in Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 46, 6, 1916–30
4. Personal Tragedies, Public Crisis: The urgent need for a national response to early death in autism. A Report by Autistica, March 2016. Accessed at: http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/autistica/downloads/images/article/Personal-tragedies-public-crisis-ONLINE.pdf#