BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Health
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Background Briefings 
Medical notes 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Paul Shattock, Austism Research Unit
"Nobody knows why autism is on the increase"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 4 April, 2001, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Autism parents hit by abuse claims
Autistic child
Autistic children are being labelled as "abused", say researchers
Doctors and social workers are mistaking genuine symptoms of autism for signs of parental abuse, claim researchers.

Many parents are told they may have Munchausen's Disease by Proxy - the condition in which a parent may invent fictitious illnesses for a child, or even harm them, to draw attention to themselves - it is claimed.

The suggestion has outraged autism campaigners, who say that too many parents are being wrongly labelled as abusers.

An autism conference in Durham on Wednesday will be told that autism cases may have risen tenfold in the past decade.

But other researchers are also pointing to a sharp rise in the number of potentially-autistic children placed on the Child Protection Register.

I believe it could be a growing epidemic

Lisa Blakemore-Brown, researcher
Psychologist Lisa Blakemore-Brown told BBC News Online that while genuine Munchausen's was extremely rare, the condition was a "moveable feast" - easy to use as an explanation in a variety of different circumstances.

She said: "I believe it could be a growing epidemic. Certainly there has been a huge rise in the number of Munchausen's cases recorded in the Child Protection Register.

"Some of these must have been taken away from their parents and put into care.

"Any kind of behavioural syndrome like autism, where there are features such as gaze aversion or poor social interaction, can be interpreted as abuse by some people."

Rashes or fits

While autistic children often share certain characteristics, such as an inability to relate to others or understand how they are feeling, individual children with the condition can display different symptoms, such as rashes, or fits.

Munchausen's by Proxy is a very trendy condition at the moment, and some people are being over-zealous in labelling people with it

Paul Shattock, Autism Research Centre
Dr Judith Gould, director of The Centre for Social and Communication Disorders, agrees that lack of experience among professionals can lead to parents being labelled instead of their children correctly diagnosed.

In an article published in 1998, she wrote: "Some parents have had very distressing encounters with paediatricians or child psychiatrists and feel they have been dropped into a nightmare scenario written by Kafka.

"Instead of the sympathetic and helpful reaction they expected from the professional they consulted, they, usually the mothers, find they are being accused of having invented or deliberately caused their child's problems in order to gain attention."

Paul Shattock, from the Autism Research Centre in Sunderland, said: "Munchausen's by Proxy is a very trendy condition at the moment, and some people are being over-zealous in labelling people with it.

"And when a label like that goes onto someone's file, they are stuck with it forever."

He is presenting research, first aired earlier this year, which supports the idea that the number of recognised autism cases have risen substantially over the past decade.

His figures, in common with others from separate research projects, suggest a tenfold rise over that period.

Experts point to the increased awareness of the condition among both parents and physicians for at least part of that rise.

However, Mr Shattock said that other environmental factors could not be ruled out.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

04 Apr 01 | A-B
15 Mar 01 | Health
Social skills for Asperger's
21 Jan 01 | Health
Doctor renews MMR safety doubts
09 Feb 01 | Health
MMR 'cleared' of autism link
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Health stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Health stories