It’s no secret that diagnosis in the UK (and, in fact, the world at large) is increasingly difficult to access. I have written at length about diagnosis, such as this article on why getting a diagnosis is so difficult, and this piece considering the issues with current diagnostic criteria. Whichever way you look at the current situation, it’s pretty dire.
Currently, there are around 700,000 Autistic people with 122,000 people with am open referral for diagnosis between July 2021 and June 2022. In terms of ADHD, it is estimated that a total of 2.6 million people meet the diagnostic criteria. Autistic children are waiting up to five years for an appointment, with many adults having to go down the private route to obtain a diagnosis. The situation is not any better in terms of ADHD with people waiting (again) up to five years for assessment.
The problem, however, is more complicated than just waiting times. Assuming you can get a referral in the first place, many professionals have very rigid and stereotypical views on how autism and ADHD present in individuals. At this point, I feel it necessary to mention the long-held and deeply inaccurate belief that these diagnoses belong to little boys. This is a view that has been perpetuated by biased research and misinformed media offerings.
This culminates in a culture within which Autistic and ADHD individuals are misdiagnosed or rejected from the diagnostic process for not fitting the diagnostic criteria written in the DSM and interpreted by the diagnostician.
What we are talking about here is a lack of cultural competency. Specifically, we are talking about the concept of neurodivergence competency as conceptualised by Tanya Adkin and written about by the both of us. As you will see from the above linked article, it is not enough to be “neurodiversity affirming”, one needs to have the foundational knowledge and nuanced perspective provided by engagement with the community in question.
This is what is missing. Professionals who diagnose autism and ADHD rarely have cultural experience. In my opinion, if your job is to identify neurodivergence, you should be active in the communities to whom that identity applies. It is not enough to have studied medicine and read some relevant sections of a textbook. To understand what autism and ADHD look like in day-to-day life, professionals need to understand our culture.
This allows a person to see how ideas such as monotropism and the double empathy problem practically apply to neurodivergent lives. It allows them to have a practical understanding of how we mask and camouflage our neurodivergence. It presents the opportunity to engage with the power structures that oppress us and understand the numerous ways we are traumatised and how that might present.
It seems non-sensical that after years of waiting for a formal diagnosis, a person might be turned away on a technicality. When a lack of cultural competency stands between a person and a validation of their identity, something is fundamentally broken. People deserve access to and validation of who they are. Gatekeeping it behind services that are oversubscribed, underfunded, and that have no post-diagnostic support to offer is perhaps one of the most unethical things that a branch of medicine can do.
In truth, requiring a diagnosis fundamentally undermines the neurodiversity movement, but the current world is yet to move beyond such diagnostic models. Until such time that diagnostic professionals engage with the communities they exist to serve, there will be a significant power imbalance, and Autistic and ADHD people will be the ones paying with their lives and wellbeing.