If you believe that there are no issues with the way that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) treats UK Autistic children and young people, I would direct you to take a look at the ongoing petition that has over 200,000 signatures. That’s a fifth of a million people who have witnessed the failures and harms exacted on Autistic children and young people by a service that is meant to save them.
Something that I keep coming back to is that CAMHS as a service needs to do more than open it’s doors to our children. In it’s current state, CAMHS could do more harm than good. I very strongly believe that in order for CAMHS to be a fit place to support Autistic people, they need to change on a fundamental level. In light of this, here are some of the issues within the current system.
Safeguarding instead of mental health care
One of the most common stories that we hear surrounding CAMHS is families of Autistic children finding themselves being referred to safeguarding services within their local authority (LA). This has become a prevalent issue that can make accessing services feel hostile and dangerous. Given that parents of Autistic children are often disabled themselves, it seems pertinent to note the increased rate at which they experience Institutionalised Parent/Carer Blame (IPCB).
This highlights a significant issue with the move over to Single Point of Access (SPoA) referrals. There can be significant disparities from area to area in triage outcomes meaning that Autistic young people and their families often do not get access to the services they need.
Lack of knowledge around Autistic and neurodivergent experience
I have spoken at length about the impact that a lack of cultural competency among professionals can have. In particular I would highlight this article I co-authored with Tanya Adkin. It is impossible for professionals to be safe for Autistic young people while they are lacking essential knowledge that can only be found by engaging with the Autistic community.
Many of the professionals within CAMHS are working from outdated and stereotyped knowledge around what autism looks like and how best to support Autistic people. This lack of knowledge can and does endanger the health and wellbeing of our children and young people. It highlights a level of disdain for minority communities when they ask for professionals to learn from them and not from an outdated textbook.
Poor handling of children vulnerable to exploitation
This is a significant issue for Autistic young people. In particular I think of the case of Ben Nelson-Roux. This young person died a victim of exploitation due to multi-agency failure (as documented in the linked article). Had CAMHS had a better professional practice regarding neurodivergence and exploitation, his story may not have ended in tragedy.
We have to highlight here the power that CAMHS have in cases such as these. When CAMHS fail to take criminal exploitation seriously, it has knock on effects for the support they receive from all services involved. CAMHS as a whole needs to be significantly more skilled in this area due to it’s prevalence among Autistic demographics.
Defensive practice occurs most commonly when services are more concerned with metrics than people. Within CAMHS this often manifests in refusals for support, and labeling service users as “not engaging” when inappropriate approaches are used for neurodivergent young people.
This might also manifest as the overuse or inappropriate use of restrictive practices and deprivation of liberty. Again, this tends to arise from a need to meet targets and achieve certain metrics rather than meaningfully support young people.
Gate-keeping of services
This one is the whole reason we’re here, and fits in with the aforementioned defensive practice. When you don’t have the skills to support a neurodivergent person, you simply refuse them access to services. This gate keeping is deadly for some young people, and trust policies that allow for it to happen play a role in the disturbingly elevated suicidality rate for Autistic young people.
Autistic people experience a great deal of psychological distress in a world that is actively hostile towards them, and yet CAMHS fails to provide them with meaningful support. In many cases they fail to provide any support at all. If we want to see an improvement in the metrics that matter (for example, measure of quality of life), much of the current mental health system in the UK needs to be restructured. This will not be a quick campaign, but it will be effective.