Autism spectrum disorder is believed to be the result of a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: An early autism detection programme developed by the Emirates Health Services (EHS) screened more than 20,000 children in the past one and a half years. Meanwhile, EHS facilities handled more than 1,000 autism patients in 2022.

EHS revealed these figures in a recent statistical report released ahead of World Mental Health Day, which falls on October 10.

EHS said it has developed an array of specialised mental health services for children and adolescents at its affiliated Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, an EHS facility specialising in pediatric and adolescent mental health in the region. Among them is the innovative early detection programme for autism spectrum disorder launched last year.

Early referral, intervention

The programme focuses on referring children with moderate to high-severity autism to specialised evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment facilities in hospitals.

A key feature of the programme is its integration of the widely recognised M-CHAT-R screening tool and a streamlined referral process of positive cases through a centralised portal. Since its inception in 2022, the programme has achieved an impressive compliance rate of 97 per cent.

In its latest report, EHS revealed that the number of children between the ages of 16 months and 30 months who benefited from this service from 2022 to the first half of 2023 reached 20,626. Furthermore, the total number of autism patients handled in 2022 amounted to 1,093 cases, it stated.

EHS said the programme was developed as part of its dedication to providing excellent healthcare services and improving people’s lives while also focusing on early detection of mental disorders and autism.

Dr Noor Alsari Al Mheiri

According to Dr Noor Alsari Al Mheiri, director of the Mental Health Department at EHS, the programme aims to direct suspected cases of autism spectrum disorder to specialised facilities for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.

“The goal is to provide necessary healthcare and specialised support to the beneficiaries and their families,” she said.

Dr Al Mheiri emphasised that the efforts to enhance early detection and support for autistic children represent a significant milestone in healthcare delivery and reflect EHS’ commitment to providing comprehensive and effective healthcare services to various segments of the community.

“EHS has worked on developing specialised mental health services for children and adolescents based on reliable evidence supported by scientific research at Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, in partnership with Maudsley Health,” she said.

Specialised facilities

Additionally, specialised clinics for child and adolescent mental health have been established at Al Qassimi Women’s and Children’s Hospital, with multidisciplinary medical teams including consultant doctors, specialists, a nursing director, speech and language therapist, social workers, clinical psychologists, as well as administrative and support staff.

EHS has also provided specialised outpatient clinics for children that operate in the morning and evening. These clinics offer assessment, treatment, and specialised rehabilitation services for psychological and behavioural disorders, tailored to the child’s age and psychological and social needs.

Furthermore, EHS offers 24-hour emergency services and a helpline to provide psychological consultations, support, and family guidance by trained psychologists, following an approved policy that ensures safety and quality.

In 2022, EHS launched a weekly clinic for autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children and adolescents at Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital.

It also established a network of tele-clinics for community-based mental health services for children and adolescents in primary care centres in the Northern Emirates and general hospitals. This initiative aims to enhance integration between primary, secondary, and tertiary care services.

EHS said it is dedicated to fulfilling its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals by actively managing early childhood conditions. As part of this, EHS ensures that all children visiting primary healthcare centres undergo early detection screenings for autism. Cases with moderate to high severity are promptly referred to specialised entities in hospitals for thorough assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.