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Former minister claims over-diagnosis of auti -

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Former minister claims over-diagnosis of autism

The World Today - Wednesday, 12 November , 2008 12:40:00

ELEANOR HALL: Back home now, and a former Queensland Education Minister has spoken out over what he
calls years of over-diagnosis of autism in his state.

Dean Wells says he's been tracking the problem and believes doctors are labelling children autistic
to enable them to qualify for government support.

His allegations are backed up by research by a Brisbane paediatrician, and the current education
minister has promised to examine the problem.

As Annie Guest reports from Brisbane.

ANNIE GUEST: Concerns about autism statistics in Queensland have been canvassed before, but these
allegations by a former Education Minister go to the heart of a doctor's credibility.

DEAN WELLS: It's well known that particular paediatricians are more likely to do this than other

ANNIE GUEST: Dean Wells is still a Labor politician and made the allegations in parliament last

Today he told ABC Radio, Queensland has twice the number of autism cases as other states. He says
they can't be true diagnoses, claiming they're linked to special funding for children.

DEAN WELLS: When I was education minister, at the start of this century I became aware of the
circumstances of children with autism in the education system, and I made certain changes that made
it easier for them to get additional educational resources.

And of course I've watched that, I've watched that through my electorate office and through the
special education units of local schools and I noticed that there was an increase.

ANNIE GUEST: The current education minister, Rod Welford isn't quibbling.

ROD WELFORD: Well, as Dean says, this appears to be the case, and if it is the case it is an
absolute disgrace.

ANNIE GUEST: Rod Welford says his department is re-examining the best way to verify a range of
disabilities. But the very people employed by his Education Department to provide that additional
support for these students are in no doubt about the situation.

Penny Beeston is the chief executive of Autism Queensland.

PENNY BEESTON: It's actually not about, you know, does this child have a diagnosis of this, that or
the other, this is about what are the concerns within our Department of Education that says that we
are not able to resource children as they need resourcing to be able to overcome various deficits
they may have in learning.

ANNIE GUEST: Well, as an organisation that is involved in the education and support of children
with autism, do you see children that you don't believe fit into this category who are perhaps
undeserving of the resources?

PENNY BEESTON: We actually never see children come through our doors with a diagnosis of autism who
don't have clear traits of autism.

ANNIE GUEST: Dean Wells does have support from some in the medical community for his claims. Autism
spectrum disorder is difficult to diagnose.

In 2005, Brisbane paediatrician Dr Catherine Skellern published research finding that
paediatricians and psychiatrists make the diagnosis, even when they're uncertain because of an
absence of definitive biological markers. She concluded funding should be linked to functional
impairment rather than diagnostic categories.

She wasn't available for an interview.

But another Brisbane paediatrician and Australian Medical Association spokesman Dr Neil Wigg says
there's no evidence that paediatricians or psychiatrists are over-diagnosing autism. He says it's a
complex illness to diagnose.

NEIL WIGG: It is not always clear and definite, and it's no different for example than working in
the field of mental healthcare, where if I can give you a parallel example, if you're trying to
make a decision about whether somebody's depressed or not, there are whole ranges of levels of

ELEANOR HALL: That's paediatrician Dr Neil Wigg ending that report from Annie Guest in Brisbane.