Improving mental health in autistic young adults: a qualitative study exploring help-seeking barriers in UK primary care

Edmund Coleman-Fountain*, Carole Buckley, Bryony Beresford

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
122 Downloads (Pure)


Background Autistic people are at increased risk of developing mental health problems. To reduce the negative impact of living with autism in a non-autistic world, efforts to improve take-up and access to care, and support in early years, which will typically start with a GP appointment, must be grounded in the accounts of autistic young adults.

Aim To explore how autistic young adults understand and manage mental health problems; and to consider help seeking as a focus.

Design and setting A cross-sectional, qualitative study. Autistic participants were purposively selected to represent a range of mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. A subsample were recruited from a population cohort screened for autism in childhood. The study concerns access to primary care.

Method Nineteen autistic young adults without learning disabilities, aged 23 or 24 years, were recruited. In-depth, semi-structured interviews explored how they understood and managed mental health problems. Data were analysed thematically.

Results Young adults preferred self-management strategies. Multiple factors contributed to a focus on self-management, including: beliefs about the aetiology of mental health difficulties and increased vulnerability with the context of a diagnosis of autism, knowledge of self-management, and a view that formal support was unavailable or inadequate. Families had limited awareness of professional support.

Conclusion Young autistic adults without learning disabilities, and their families, may hold erroneous beliefs about autism and mental health. This may affect help seeking and contribute to an exacerbation of symptoms. GPs need to be alert to the fact that autistic young adults in their care may be experiencing mental health difficulties but may not recognise them as such.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e356-e363
Number of pages8
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number694
Early online date21 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020


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