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Since May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, we thought we’d address an issue that we get many questions about here at Seattle Children’s Autism Center: accessing mental health services for our kids on the spectrum. The questions we hear most often are:

  • What mental health services exist for children and adolescents with autism?

  • Where are mental health services offered?

  • How do I access these services?

In a previous blog, we reviewed treatments used with individuals with autism. Mental health interventions include cognitive-behavioral therapy and behavior therapy. These are typically provided in individual therapy where specific goals are identified for addressing problems such as anxiety, depression, disruptive behavior, aggression, and self-injury. 

Mental health services for those with autism may look different depending upon where you live. In Washington State, public mental health services are provided via a system of Regional Support Networks (RSN). It is intended that families access services in their geographic RSN. These may be offered at public centers and hospitals. Your area may also have private psychiatric or behavioral health centers or individual providers.

If your child is receiving services from a comprehensive autism center, it’s likely that both medical and mental health service are provided and the distinction is related to they type of provider involved (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) and billing for insurance.

Tips for accessing mental health services:

1.  Become familiar with mental health services in your area

The internet is a good place to help you locate mental health services in your local area. State, county, and city government agencies often have websites that describe their services and eligibility criteria.  Hospitals can be a resource in locating mental health services as well.

2.  Check with your insurance provider

Large insurance carriers have many different plans for their members. The only way you will know if a particular provider or center is covered is to ask about your unique plan. Many companies have lists of in-network providers on their website. If your insurance is Medicaid, there may be restrictions on coverage such as accessing services in the county in which you live.

3.  Identify your child’s specific behavioral issues.

We often hear from parents that they were told by a community mental health agency that they do not provide “autism services”.  Mental health services aren’t tailored to address the social-communication deficits of autism so if you are seeking help with behavioral issues, it is important to identify what these are. For example, if your child has problems with anxiety, it is the anxiety you are seeking help with rather than autism. If your child has aggressive or self-injurious behavior, this is the main issue rather than autism.

4.  Enlist the assistance of your child’s primary care physician (PCP)

A referral for mental health services may be required and the provider who knows your child best is the most likely choice. He or she can help identify the presenting issues.

5.  Be persistent!

Navigating any system new to you isn’t easy at first. Understanding the lingo and finding a road map to services may take time. If you don’t understand something, ask again. If a door seems to close in your search, keep asking.

The mental health system can be a confusing one to navigate. We hope that this helps to make it a little easier.