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BBC Newsnight's Matthew Hill
"Asperger's syndrome went undiagnosed for many years"
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Tuesday, 27 June, 2000, 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK
Autism misdiagnosis 'ruined a life'
Sean Honeysett
Sean Honeysett has been in and out of institutions
Sean Honeysett is paying the price for nearly two decades of being wrongly diagnosed as mentally ill.

His entire adult life has been blighted by frequent spells in and out of psychiatric units and prison.

He has been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and anti-depressants, and has made several suicide attempts.

However, doctors have now discovered that Sean is not mentally ill, but instead suffers from a poorly understood form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome.

He has been treated by the psychiatric world since he was 14, but he has not got a psychiatric problem

Sally Honeysett

The number of people identified as having Asperger's has soared in recent years as GPs and psychiatrists get better at spotting the condition in childhood.

Some 300,000 people in the UK have now been identified as sufferers.

But it is feared that many people, like Sean, have slipped through the net, and are not receiving the psychological support they so badly need.

High hopes

Sean Honeysett
Sean was a bright child

Sean was a bright and friendly child, who learned to read before he went to school. His parents had high hopes for his future.

However, 30 years later he now finds it difficult to communicate - even with his parents.

In fact, Sean demonstrated classic signs of Asperger's from an early age. He was often naughty and his inability to relate to other children led one educational psychologist to label him as "emotionally disturbed".

Things came to a head at the age of 15. Instead of going back to school in September to study for "O" levels, he shut himself in his bedroom, and said he wanted to die.

Sean never went to school again. He was referred to a psychiatrist who wrongly diagnosed him as being mentally ill.

Sean's problems went from bad to worse, he became depressed and aggressive.

The variety of anti-psychotic drugs he was on did nothing to improve his condition.

At 24 he was sentenced to six months for assaulting a police officer while drunk.

He was released on appeal after 10 days in Brixton prison.

BBC programme

Finally, in 1995 Sean's mother Sally saw a BBC television programme on Apserger's.

She read up on Asperger's, and became increasingly convinced her son was suffering from the condition. The family pushed for a psychological assessment from an expert in autism.

Sally said: "The psychologist said to us, 'He has Asperger's, why has this never been picked up?'

"She was absolutely horrified."

Sean and his family
Sean even has trouble communicating with his family

Mrs Honeysett's first reaction was one of relief: "I thought my son's not a nutter. He has been treated by the psychiatric world since he was 14, but he has not got a psychiatric problem."

However, four years after his diagnosis Sean is still heavily dependant on psychiatric services.

At present, he is being cared for at a unit in Hillingdon, west London.

His psychiatrist, who has treated him since December, trained in the Netherlands where Asperger's syndrome has greater recognition as a possible reason for patients' apparent psychiatric problems.

He believes Sean's condition should have been picked up in childhood.

"He is of normal intelligence, but he feels very, very guilty because of a lot of nasty things that have happened to him.

"If his condition had been detected a lot earlier then he would not be that ill or that dependent on services as he is now."

Sean is now gradually being weaned off the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he had been taking.

Asperger's syndrome was identified by Hans Asperger - an Austrian psychiatrist in 1944.

But it wasn't until 1981 - when Sean was 16 - that his paper, written in German, came to the attention of a British psychiatrist.

Autistic children often have little desire to interact. Children with Asperger's syndrome do want to mix, but do not have the social skills to do so effectively.

A recent study of patients in three high security special hospitals - Broadmoor, Rampton and Ashworth - found that up to 5.3% of the inmates had an autism-like disorder.

That is more than three times higher than the incidence in the general population.

The other great unknown is how many people in prison may have undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome.

The National Autism Society runs an information line on 0870 600 85 85.

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