Wednesday, April 15, 2009

News reader shares autism battle

By BBC News

Channel 4 news reader Alex Thomson has had a three-year struggle to get educational care for his autistic son.

A health trust was forced to apologise to him for changing the boy's diagnosis after bowing to pressure from the education authority.

He told BBC 5 live's Victoria Derbyshire show he thought parents across the UK had experienced the same problems.

In 2006 a paediatrician at the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust in Essex diagnosed Alex Thomson and his partner Sarah Spiller's son Henry, then aged six, with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Henry had already been issued a statement of special needs - a legal document guaranteeing him extra support at school.

The family then asked their local authority (LEA) to re-assess Henry to find out what additional help at school he might need.

The LEA refused, and Mr Thomson says that they were told that the paediatrician had withdrawn her initial diagnosis of autism.

Mr Thomson said: "Lo and behold, it appeared that our child had been cured of autism, and that's when we began to think something very strange was going on."

Henry's diagnosis of autism was subsequently backed up by other medical specialists his parents consulted, and Mr Thomson and Ms Spiller complained to the General Medical Council.

During an official inquiry by the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, the family say they received a letter from the hospital's chief executive saying the paediatrician admitted she had felt compelled to downgrade the diagnosis of autism after pressure from local educational officials.


"They (local education officials) were going behind our backs to change a diagnosis," said Mr Thomson.

"Now that struck us as something incredibly serious, and the reason we're going public is we suspect this is happening the length and the breadth of the country."

He went on to say that it was important to "make a noise... if only so that people out there can think, yeah, I'm not alone in this".

The hospital trust said it had apologised to the family .

In a statement, the trust said: "We can confirm that we have reviewed our procedures in the light of national guidelines and the need to continue to develop the best possible local practices."

The Healthcare Commission, which also investigated the matter, said it did not accept there was collusion when it came to professionals withdrawing Henry's diagnosis.

Mr Thomson said: "If you've got a doctor who is under pressure, behind your back, from education officials who are not medical people, putting pressure on a doctor to change a diagnosis, I say that's collusion."

And his partner Sarah Spiller added: "The Healthcare Commission said ... that there was uncertainty in the multi-agency team about how and why a diagnosis of autism is made, and I think that uncertainty is also a cause for alarm."

'Learning commitment'

Mr Thomson said the system had made him angry, and that the "clear conflict of interest" he believed existed had got education officials and paediatricians into "a mess".

He called for an independent body to be set up, as he felt his case had proved the system was open to abuse.

Essex County Council said it had requested a copy of the report from the Princess Alexandra Hospital Trust, but was yet to receive the document. The council maintained that it could not comment on the findings until then.

It said: "The council is committed to providing the very best learning opportunities for every child in Essex.

"Any decisions regarding a child's education, therefore, are made not on the basis of cost, but on the needs of the child."


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