Autism: a badge of honour, or a misunderstood way of being?
The past couple of days have seen autism come into the public eye once again. An article written by Damian Whitworth for The Times has caught the attention of the wider autism community, and, as often happens when something gets written about us, without us, the result is a rather skewed and ill-informed attempt to sell a book, product, or service. The article centres on Dr Mike Shooter, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists-turned-author, whom believes that autism is "vastly over-diagnosed" and used by middle-class parents as a "badge of honour" to explain away their child's bad behaviour. Yesterday, he appeared on This Morning to propagate this view; stating that more time should be spent by psychiatrists and parents on dealing with children's life problems, rather than rushing to label them.
Is autism diagnosed too quickly?
In the UK, approximately 700,000 people have been diagnosed somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and diagnosis rates have increased since the introduction of Asperger's Syndrome into the DSM-IV in 1995. This broader diagnostic criteria has meant that many people, myself included, are able to access (limited) services and support to help them with their so-called life problems. This doesn't mean that the diagnostic process is a quick-fix, however. According to research conducted by City and Goldsmiths, University of London in 2012, the average wait for parents between first contacting a healthcare professional and receiving a diagnosis for their child was 3.6 years.
It's by no means any easier to get a diagnosis as an adult, either. I was 27 when I was diagnosed, and had to wait for the best part of a year for an assessment to take place. The months of waiting had a detrimental impact on my mental health. I was unemployed and unable to access any support, so in my case there was an urgent need to be labelled; my life was going nowhere without one. The process itself took several hours to complete, and my father was interviewed on a separate occasion, so it was hardly a spur-of-the-moment whim to label me. I was quite fortunate, since one source reported that on average adults have waited two years to get a diagnosis.
Is autism a badge of honour?
Diagnosis doesn't eliminate the difficulties we face, but it acts as a gateway through which self-understanding and help is more accessible (see here for a list of autism services available to adults in West Sussex). I for one don't believe that Dr Shooter is correct in saying that parents want a means of justifying they children's bad behaviour, but are seeking support they don't have the time and/or expertise to provide themselves. It would be great if parents had more time to spend with their children and help them to cope, but the exigencies of life - earning enough money to feed, clothe and house their family - means that this is a luxury that few can afford. When one considers that almost 8 in 10 autistic adults have mental health problems, and around 15% of all people in the UK hospitalised after attempting suicide are autistic, it is clear that we suffer disproportionately for being different, and that comments made by Dr Shooter are not helping anyone other than himself. Consequently, if earlier diagnosis leads to more support growing up, then that can only be a positive thing.
Reading articles by the likes of Damian Whitworth makes me feel marginalised and worried for the autistic community; it seems that some people see the word autism and read hypochondria, before dismissing the difficulties we face. Whilst some may see autism as a badge of honour to be worn by cyber-geeks and the socially-aloof, I see it as an inherent part of who I am which I have learned to accept. I don't consider myself cool for being different, neither do I behave badly and then seek to exonerate myself because I'm having a bad day. I do speak up for autistic people through my work, however, because I believe that it's fair for us to have a say in how we wish to be treated.