autism in the news: media misinformation and prejudice combines with unprofessional allied health

Two recent articles Autism diagnosis rises 18/12/2014 and Soaring demand for autism, ADHD assessments 12/12/2014 mention increased autism diagnosis.

The first article claims “Professor Hiscock said it was likely that more children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder were being recognised where before they might have been missed”. “Likely”? That's just lazy reporting; it's not hard to find authoritative information.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that despite a massive increase in autism diagnoses there was very little change in severity: in 2009 74% has severe or profound disability, then in 2012 after a 79% increase (in just 3 years) 73% had severe or profound disability. Few people with autism (under 30%) have mild or moderate disability. The ABS survey assesses all disability, not just autism. Yes, “more children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder were being recognised” but these ABS data indicate many more children with severe or profound disability were recognised as well.

In Australia, massive growth in serious autism, that is autism diagnosed formally by allied health professionals and associated with enough disability to warrant families receiving Carer Allowance, has also been reported – see here, here and here.

The second item says “access to funding is a significant driver of growing numbers of children with suspected behavioural disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, a leading clinical psychologist says” … but provides no evidence supporting this claim. Australian media promotes the uninformed and prejudiced view that families of children with disability are out to rort “the system”.

The need for a diagnosis to qualify for funding, via the federal government’s ‘‘Helping Children with Autism’’ package or the National Disability Insurance Scheme in relevant areas, is very strong, Dr Sturgeon said.

‘‘The NDIS is one of the biggest factors. The services aren’t ready for it and there is quite a lot of pressure on them, and it will take time for them to build up to meet that demand,’’ Dr Sturgeon said.

‘‘Where previously parents may have thought, ‘I am not too concerned with a diagnosis’, many families now want that access to early intervention funding.’’

There is no basis for claiming that “the NDIS is one of the biggest factors” in autism growth (or whatever): Dr Sturgeon, the reporter and the editor clearly missed that increasing autism diagnosis is a worldwide phenomenon and has been going on for decades. Substantial growth in autism diagnoses

  • was already observed before there was any thought of Australia's Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) package or the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) – see items here, here and here.

  • is worldwide (see here and here), it is not just associated with recent funding in Australia.

The number of participants with autism surprised the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) because many Australian officials choose to remain wilfully ignorant (see here, here and the first footnote here).

The articles also says “According to the scheme’s annual report, 21per cent of participants’ approved in the first 12 months nominated autism and related disorders as their primary diagnosis”. Actually, the NDIA's Annual Report says 21% of participants in NSW have “autism and related disorders” as their primary disability while the rates in other trial states are 33% is SA, 30% in Tas and 24% in Vic.

Families of children with autism, which the ABS found is mostly severe or profound disability, have always wanted best (or just good) practice early intervention for their child. But HCWA funded about 5% of what the Government advise is best practice for children with autism. NDIS funding for autism is extremely variable. Rather than accessing funding, families get access to allied health workers (like those in these articles) who

  • lack awareness, training and experience of best practice intervention for autism,

  • misinform families about autism and

  • impose on families responsibility for treating their child when the evidence shows parent-directed programs do not improve “important outcomes such as [key] aspects of children's language, children's adaptive skills and parent stress” (see here).

Once again, the media chose misinformation and prejudice in these articles rather that fact and information. And allied health “professionals” have engaged in unprofessional conduct in relation to autism.