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HealthPathways Mackay puts the spotlight on Autism Spectrum Disorder

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From left to right: Dr Aaron Kennedy, Emma Moohin, Toni Simmons and Rebecca Binder
(Integrated Health Team Mackay Hospital and Health Service)


Local pathways on the best ways to care for the physical and mental health of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were released in Mackay earlier this month.

For the first time Mackay Hospital and Health Service (HHS) general practitioners and other health professionals can access information on the best way to support patients of all ages on the spectrum.

Over 60 health professionals attended the launch of the pathways, which included education sessions run by leading national researchers.

HealthPathways Senior Clinical Editor and Mackay general practitioner, Dr Aaron Kennedy said while a lot of effort had gone into early diagnosis of ASD, up until now there had been little information on how to manage ongoing care.

“One of the confronting things is that research is showing people with a diagnosis of ASD are dying too early from conditions that can be managed through better preventative care,” Dr Kennedy said.

“People on the autism spectrum experience unique health-related needs and may exhibit poorer physical and mental health outcomes in comparison to the general population. However, there is a lack of information on how to best support individuals on the spectrum.”

Dr Kennedy said people with ASD had cardiovascular and gut health issues, as well as sensory, social, and emotional issues.

Collaborating in research and development

The new suite of ASD pathways launched by HealthPathways Mackay are the first of their kind for the HealthPathways Community and reflect more than two years collaborative work. After conducting research with local general practitioners on their knowledge and confidence in caring for people with ASD, the team then developed pathways to provide both clinical guidance on best local practice and practical tips for supporting people with ASD.

The research is a product of the Mackay Hospital and Health Service Integrated Health team in partnership with the Autism Cooperative Research Centre, Northern Queensland Primary Health Network (NQPHN) and other partners.

NQPHN Executive Director Mackay, Karin Barron said collaboration between the partners was imperative to the development of the ASD HealthPathways.

“The ASD HealthPathways for Mackay health professionals came about as a result of robust relationships and collaboration across the research, primary, and acute health care sectors. The project was a unique opportunity for all involved to work together to help Mackay residents to receive the right care, in the right place, at the right time,” Ms Barron said.

“The aim is to build the capacity of local health care providers to better assist

individuals with autism so they can live happier, healthier, longer lives.”

Integrated Health Manager, Toni Simmons said a key goal of the pathways was to provide guidance that focused not only on the diagnosis, but on what happens beyond.

“We wanted to develop pathways that would improve the health journey for people with ASD across their life span. We started with a blank sheet of paper and through our research considered every health need that a person with ASD may have. We conducted sessions with 32 health professionals to understand where gaps were and what didn’t work well. We also surveyed consumers, carers and parents, and people who identify as being on the spectrum, and looked at their feedback on their journey.”

“It’s hard for a parent to navigate the health system but children with autism become adults with autism too, so that’s why we need to support people through their lifetime,” she said.

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Panel discussion at the Mackay HealthPathways Autism Initiative symposium


Expert speakers highlight focus on lifespan

To launch the new pathways, the HealthPathways Mackay team held an event for local health practitioners on Saturday 31 August. Guest speakers at the Mackay HealthPathways Autism Initiative ‘The spectrum - through their eyes, through their lives’  symposium highlighted the need for focus across the lifespan of a person with ASD. Participants also heard from the mother of an adult child with ASD.

The guest speakers and their topics were: 

  • Dr. Michalis Yiallourides, Staff Specialist Paediatrics, Child Protection Advisor
    “Early Intervention in the Autism Spectrum”
  • Dr. James Best, General Practitioner
    “The fecundity of the unexpected - autism, adolescence and Africa”
  • Associate Professor David Harley, Senior Clinician Scientist
    “Anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication in adults with autism”

The sessions were recorded and will be shared with the HealthPathways Community when available.

Dr Kennedy said it was hoped the education and promotion of the pathways would give health professionals more knowledge.

“There needs to be an awareness that this is an at-risk group of people we need to manage carefully,” he said.

The pathways also include tips on how to make general practices more accessible for people with ASD and practical considerations around appointment times that are more suitable.

“The question for doctors is how do you respond to a person with a different view of the world, rather than expecting them to conform to the way we have set up our systems.”


Building local engagement

For tips and resources to help you build HealthPathways engagement in your area, see Getting General Practice Engaged with HealthPathways, or Engagement and Education for helpful resources provided by members of the HealthPathways Community.

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From left to right: Dr Michalis Yiallourides (Townsville Hospital Staff Specialist Paediatrics), Dr Aaron Kennedy (Lead GP Clinical Editor Mackay HealthPathways), Katie Brooker (Autism CRC funded postdoctoral research fellow UQ),Toni Simmons (Integrated Health Manager/GPLO), Karin Barron (Executive Director Mackay Northern Queensland Primary Health Network), Dr James Best  (NSW GP) Assoc. Professor David Harley (Senior Clinician with the Mater Research Institute-UQ and Director to the Queensland Centre for Intellectual and Developmental Disability)