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Article of Interest - Asperger's Syndrome

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Bridges4Kids LogoBestseller Helps Parents Fight Accusations of Child Abuse
Books: Novel has shed light on Asperger's Syndrome but families still find themselves under investigation.
by Matthew Chapman, The Observer, September 26, 2004
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Mark Haddon's poignant story of Christopher Boone, a teenager suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time sold close to a million copies and won the Whitbread Book of the Year.

But its success has led to charities and experts on Asperger's saying that increasing numbers of parents are contacting them to report harrowing cases where childcare proceedings are being brought by social services. The government is now to investigate the allegations.

It is estimated that 48,000 children in Britain suffer from Asperger's, a form of autism, yet despite it being a medically accepted condition local authorities are accused of disregarding scientific opinion in favour of diagnoses of abuse.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University has accused the local authorities of 'turning the clock back 50 years'.

The situation has arisen because, like Christopher, the child detective, Asperger's sufferers often possess very high IQs yet can be almost totally lacking in social skills. This can lead to apparently odd behaviour being misinterpreted.

'The fact that the book came out means we have increased recognition of Asperger's,' said Baron-Cohen. 'But this has revealed that schools and social services have been misrecognising it and putting it down to bad parenting.'

Parents have been contacting charities such as the National Autism Society, which is helping a mother accused of Munchausen's By Proxy, a controversial diagnosis where mothers are accused of deliberately harming their own children. 'This is despite the fact that the child had been diagnosed with Asperger's and the very existence of Munchausen's is being questioned,' said a lawyer involved with the case.

Education Minister Lord Filkin told BBC Radio 5 Live that his department would urgently investigate the allegations.

At her home in Essex, former insurance clerk Debbie Storey is still trying to make sense of the traumatic events of the past few months when she and her husband, Michael, came desperately close to having both their children taken into care.

As is common with Asperger's children, they removed their sons, Ben, 15, and Sam, 10, from school after they fell prey to severe bullying. 'Ben once came home with a huge bruise after someone hit him and he had his tuck-box rammed into his face,' says Debbie. 'It got so bad he self-harmed and took a big chunk out of his own flesh.' She now teaches both boys at home, which she says caused increasing tension, first with the Essex education authority and then social services.

Debbie says that her constant battles to get provisions to which they were legally entitled led events to take a more sinister turn. Last year a confidential report prepared for the council accused Debbie and her husband of psychologically abusing their children. The report concluded that: 'Mr and Mrs Storey are consciously or unconsciously using their children to meet their own needs. They appear to lack an appropriate awareness and consideration of the children's needs and this in our view has and continues to negatively affect both Ben and Sam.' Debbie believes this was a veiled hint that they suffered from Munchausen's.

This summer Ben had to give evidence before a child protection panel, where he says he counted 22 people sitting around a table waiting to question him. His speech is clear and logical, peppered with the formal phraseology reminiscent of 1930s news broadcasts, which is typical of children with Asperger's.

'I only had five minutes to say why I didn't think I should be taken into care, which I don't think is very fair,' he said. Minutes later the chairman of the panel came out to see him with some shocking news. 'He said, "Right you're on the at risk register because your parents are abusing you emotionally and physically". At first I was numbed by that information, just the way that it was said, quick, sharp.

'The next words out of his mouth were, "It concerns me you are not into sport and fashion like normal children of your age". Then, after that gem, he said: "Oh, it's the decision of the panel that you've got to lose some weight". No offence to the panel, but half of them were overweight.'

The family's legal team challenged the decision and last week Debbie and Michael received a letter from Essex County Council to say their children were no longer being considered for care proceedings. A council spokesman said the authority never commented on individual cases.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common, said Baron-Cohen. 'It risks turning the clock back 50 years to when parents of children with the related condition of autism were blamed for having caused their child's condition,' he said.

Social workers say they face a particularly sensitive task when trying to assess children who may have special needs. 'Just because a child has Asperger's doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a problem with parenting,' said John Coughlan of the Association of Directors of Social Services. 'Some studies have shown the children who suffer from disabilities are at potentially greater risk of abuse, so we always have to look carefully at every case.'


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