Many GPs feel unprepared to treat patients with autism, a survey suggests.
Autistic disorders are often diagnosed in childhood
The National Autistic Society (NAS) found 42% felt they lacked the skills or expertise to recognise signs of autism, half the number who have actually seen patients with autism in the last 12 months.
The figure was even higher amongst those GPs who said they had not seen an autism patient in the last 12 months.
Almost three quarters said they did not feel able to make an informed assessment, leading the NAS to warn that patients who registered with these GPs are unlikely to be proactively identified.
Two thirds of the 450 GPs surveyed said the number of patients with autism on their practice lists has increased over the last four years.
The NAS would like to see government-sponsored guidance for GPs
Family doctors told the NAS they wanted more guidance and training in identifying signs that a patient may have autism.
In an average list size of 2,000 patient, around 18 are likely to have autism. Autism, a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them, affects around half a million people in the UK.
GPs are often the first point of contact for families who think their child may be autistic, who are then referred on to specialists.
But the NAS found one in eight did not know how or where to refer a patient and four in 10 were unaware of local support organisations.
GPs also commented that the referral process did not operate smoothly, and said it could take over a year for the patient to be finally diagnosed with autism.
Steve Broach, head of policy and campaigns at the NAS, said: "The NAS would like to see government-sponsored guidance for GPs and other primary care professionals in working with people with autism.
"Autism awareness training should be integrated into the curriculum for student doctors and become a mandatory part of GP continuing professional development.
"And Primary Care Trusts should be responsible for training all primary care professionals in autism awareness and developing better mechanisms for informing GPs about referral and local support services."