How CAMHS tier system obstructs Autistic young people from accessing support

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have, for a long time, failed to provide support to Autistic children and young people. When it comes to autism, there is perhaps no service more infamous for it’s failures than CAMHS. Despite this, every year more and more Autistic people try in vain to access the support they are legally entitled to, often having their situation made worse in the process.

The CAMHS Tier System

CAMHS is modelled on a system of tiers, with tier 1 being at the bottom of a pyramid that grows to tier 4.

Tier 1 is where most people enter the system. They approach GP’s (for example) because their mental health is declining. This is where one of the key issues can first be witnessed. Diagnostic overshadowing.

What is diagnostic overshadowing?

Diagnostic overshadowing refers to a type of medical failure where a healthcare professional attributes a physical of mental health concern to a patients pre-existing diagnosis (in this case, autism). The Royal College of Nursing goes into more depth about it here.

Within this context, a GP may refuse to escalate a young person’s position within the CAMHS tier model because they believe, for example, that their anxiety is “a part of their autism”. Diagnostic overshadowing remains a significant issue not only because it obstructs pathways into support but also because it obscures the ability of researchers to investigate co-occuring mental health issues in Autistic people.

Tier 2

Tier 2 involves access to early help services, but for a lot of Autistic people, this looks like safeguarding concerns. Rather than provide mental health support, we enter into a world of parent/carer blame and systemic hostility. It is because of these institutional practices of moving the goal posts that so many Autistic people skip right over tier 3 and enter into tier 4 care.

Inpatient Treatment

I title this section with more than a hint of irony. As I mentioned in a previous article, 93% of under 18’s under inpatient treatment are Autistic, despite the Mental Health Act code of practice stating how inappropriate this particular setting is. The irony comes from referring to it as treatment. For many Autistic people, being an inpatient can mean spending years locked away from society for no better reason than the lack of appropriate resources in the community. Let us not forget the horrific abuses that Autistic people have experienced in inpatient settings.

How do we fix this?

Meeting a young person’s needs at tiers 1 and 2 or having more specialised resources available at tier 3 could help to mitigate these failures. Having appropriate knowledge within tier 1 services as well as less emphasis on safeguarding in tier 2 could have a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of our Autistic young people.

Tier 3, in particular, could benefit from services that specialise in Autistic presentations of mental health. I would argue that tier 3 should not just involve child psychiatry but also implement a roll out of peer mentoring programmes that employ knowledgeable Autistic people to work with young people around understanding their strengths and struggles, and subsequent boundaries. Until these things are done, CAMHS will remain unfit for purpose.

Click here to sign the petition regarding CAMHS refusal to see Autistic young people.