UCL Global


Improving the diagnosis of women and girls with autism

Professor Will Mandy (UCL Clinical, Education and Health Psychology) used Global Engagement Funds to secure a collaboration with the University of Toronto that could help improve the lives of many

Will mandy and meng chuan lai

27 September 2021

Due to the way autism is currently diagnosed, many girls ‘fall through the cracks’ as their symptoms often present differently than boys and can be more subtle. Professor Mandy’s research hopes to improve diagnosis to solve this problem and therefore provide better care for autistic girls and women.

He had already worked with Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, Psychiatrist and Clinician Scientist at the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative (CAMH) at the University of Toronto, but wanted to develop their collaboration.

Global Engagement Funds allowed him to visit the University of Toronto in 2017 to build networks and develop a research collaboration which has resulted in several published papers (including in Lancet Psychiatry) and a grant of £300,000 from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), the NHS’s research funding arm, to develop his diagnosis research.

A unique problem for females with autism

According to charity Autism UK, there are over 700,000 adults and children who are on the autism spectrum in the UK. Many, however, are undiagnosed.

As the symptoms of autism can present differently in girls, they are often undiagnosed, therefore receive little or no support. This can manifest in secondary mental health issues later in life, for example around a quarter of women in anorexia clinics are estimated to be on the autistic spectrum.

Professor Mandy is developing an approach that will help stop young girls missing this crucial screening, and help to diagnose adult women more effectively.

Face-to-face contact to cement a collaboration

Mandy and Lai had a shared interest in the area and wanted to work together. They had collaborated to some extent and wanted to further develop their thinking, but being based in London and Toronto respectively this wasn’t easy.

Global Engagement Funds allowed Profesor Mandy to visit Ontario, Canada and give talks at both the University of Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton.

His talks were attended by a large audience of clinicians, academics, charities and people with autism. While there, he attended meetings, visited Dr Lai’s clinic, and the pair had many discussions to develop their thinking and joint research.

It was an opportunity to meet a wider circle of colleagues and clinicians and deepen connections. “After the talks we would go to dinners, which were a fantastic platform for getting feedback,”, says Professor Mandy. “At one dinner I was sitting next to a statistician who had the exact expertise to solve a problem I was having with my data. You only get that kind of luck if you can physically go and meet people”.

Following the visit, they have jointly published several papers and Dr Lai has become involved in Professor Mandy’s PhD students’ supervision.

As a result of the collaboration of two researchers, there is now a large regular working group across UCL and the University of Toronto, comprising around ten researchers and clinicians.

Professor Mandy said: “The Global Engagement Funds has given me a chance to build and extend networks, develop collaborations and build an international profile for the work I’m doing at UCL which has been very helpful.”

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