INSAR Day 2: ECHO Autism works to improve mental health care for autistic people

May 13, 2022
women holding hands

Autistic people experience a high risk for co-occurring psychiatric conditions, particularly anxiety and depression. Despite this, people with autism often struggle to access the mental health support they need. This can lead to negative outcomes, including poor quality of life and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in reducing anxiety and depression in autistic people. However, few clinicians are trained to deliver CBT tailored to the needs of the autistic community. In response to this need, the University of Missouri – ECHO Autism Communities, with the support of the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network, developed the ECHO Autism: Mental Health program.

ECHO Autism: Mental Health is a virtual learning program that brings together autism experts, mental health clinicians, family advocates and self-advocates to share information and expertise that advances better care for autistic individuals. In a series of 15 sessions in the first cohort, clinicians got the opportunity to share case studies, receive advice from a panel of experts, gain knowledge about CBT techniques and strategies, and engage with a community of peers and professionals.

A recent study examining the efficacy of the ECHO Autism: Mental Health program found that participants were very satisfied with each session. Clinicians reported improvements in their ability to deliver CBT to people with autism, and increased knowledge and confidence working with those with co-occurring mental health concerns.

The study also showed high program feasibility, meaning that mental health clinicians were not overly burdened by the demands of the program and were able to integrate it into their schedules. Many participants reported that the program felt like a safe space to ask questions, share their difficult cases and be vulnerable about the gaps in their knowledge of autism. Many said the multidisciplinary team of experts and family advocates was key to their learning. 

These results suggest that ECHO Autism: Mental Health is a useful program that increases mental health clinicians’ confidence in delivering CBT to the autistic community. 

“One thing that is special about the ECHO Autism: Mental Health program is that it is more than a one-time workshop,” said Brenna Maddox, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “We know from implementation science literature that having a one-time training often does not result in clinician behavior change. Having this ongoing support and tele-mentoring is consistent with literature for sustainable change of behavior.”

Autism Speaks is proud to support this work and the work of the other ECHO Autism clinics through the Autism Care Network. Our network of ECHO Autism clinics deliver educational sessions on a range of topics and services, improving provider knowledge of autism and enhancing community access to quality care.

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