The National Autism Project is a new project supported by The Shirley Foundation. Its initial aim is to provide authoritative recommendations on those aspects of autism research and practice that have demonstrable effectiveness in benefiting autistic people and their communities. Its remit is very broad,  encompassing education, social care, community, housing, employment, societal perception and understanding, healthcare and biological/medical research.

Building on the recommendations, the National Autism Project will conduct a campaign aimed at policy makers and funders to demonstrate the economic benefits to the UK that could be gained by greater investment in interventions that meet the needs of autistic people, that increase their wellbeing and that enhance their ability to contribute to society.  By applying economic arguments, the National Autism Project intends to increase substantially the proportion of national resource devoted to research and practice in autism.

The impetus for the project is the enormous financial impact of autism in the UK (£32b per annum) which is in stark contrast to the very low level of research funding (£4m per annum), especially when  compared with costly medical conditions such as cancer and dementia. This disparity will be addressed through economic modelling and developing scenarios of the economic benefits that could result from better and bigger investment.  Where the data are insufficient to do this, the National Autism Project will identify those interventions where further research is needed to estimate the potential benefits to quality of life, or, when this is already known, whether these interventions are cost-effective.

The National Autism Project will collect evidence internationally as well as from the UK and will draw on the knowledge of a wide range of experts for help in interpretation of the information. It will work in partnership with established autism organisations and policymakers in all four countries of the UK to understand and reflect the differing priorities and emphases of each nation. The first phase of work on modelling impacts will result in an expert report with a target date for publication in late summer 2016.

The second phase, currently envisaged as lasting a further 18 months, will use the report as the basis for raising awareness of the importance of further investment, and will conduct a campaign to ensure that the report’s recommendations are taken up by policy makers and funders. In considering how its recommendations could be incorporated into practice, the National Autism Project will be looking to build on present legislation and policy such as the Autism Act, and the plans developed by Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It is possible that this phase could lead ultimately to the development of a UK National Plan for autism.