Leading psychologist warns against over-diagnosis of autism In Halifax

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Following reports of a five-fold rise in people waiting to see an autism specialist in England since 2019 and a 51 per cent increase in ADHD medication prescriptions, one of the UK's foremost clinical psychologists is sounding the alarm on the risks of over-diagnosis. Dr Lisa Williams, Director and Lead Clinical Psychologist at The Autism Service, Responds to Reports of Skyrocketing Wait Times and Backlogs

Dr Lisa Williams, who has over 12 years' experience assessing and diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), argues the surge in demand does not reflect a true rise in prevalence. Instead, she believes awareness raising campaigns and social media have distorted society's understanding of neurodiversity and what constitutes "typical" behaviour.

"If we’re not more careful, diagnoses like ASD and ADHD are going to be meaningless, with every other person we meet having been labelled as such," warned Dr Williams, who leads the clinician-owned The Autism Service operating 29 clinics across England and Wales, including one in Halifax.

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With 172,000 adults and children now on NHS waiting lists for ASD assessments - the highest recorded figure according to NHS data - and some ADHD patients waiting one to two years, Dr Williams emphasises these conditions remain relatively rare developmental disabilities requiring specialist care. However, she argues the increasing popularity of broad categories like "neurodiversity" have led to a blurring of diagnostic criteria.

Dr Lisa Williams has had over 12 years’ experience assessing and diagnosing ASDDr Lisa Williams has had over 12 years’ experience assessing and diagnosing ASD
Dr Lisa Williams has had over 12 years’ experience assessing and diagnosing ASD

Dr Williams said: "The more we broaden and blur what diagnoses like ASD and ADHD look like, the more people will 'fit' into the category and the less specialist care is available for people living with a true developmental disability.

“It has become popular to talk about ‘differences’ rather than ‘disabilities’ and ‘disorders’ but in doing so we lose what is intrinsic about ASD and ADHD,” she added.

The current problem we have, according to Dr Williams, is compounded by celebrities with questionable diagnoses, misuse of the popular concept of ‘masking’, reliance on virtual assessments over in-person clinical evaluations, and people not being well equipped to cope with everyday struggles.

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Dr Williams stressed the critical importance of rigorous, clinically-validated diagnostic practices to ensure those genuinely requiring support can access it.

With some 32,000 on NHS waiting lists in 2019, before recently reported spikes, Dr Williams argues the invaluable awareness raised for neurodiversity has regrettably "gone too far."

The Autism Service currently assesses around 2,000 people annually, with most being private patients though some are funded by the NHS, local councils, and His Majesty's Prison Service. Their diagnosis rate is around 60 per cent, contrasting with some services reporting rates near 100%.

Dr Williams said: "If we pushed back on this, insisting the diagnostic criteria is used as intended, the waiting list problem would stop and nothing would be 'skyrocketing'... If the situation continues, every other person will have a diagnosis of ASD or ADHD, rendering the diagnosis completely meaningless."

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Instead, Dr Williams advocates for rigorous diagnostic processes respectful of clinical systems, managing demand appropriately, and maximising specialised care access for those genuinely requiring it.

She said: "My agenda is only motivated by a desire to get things right for the small groups of people that do have conditions like ASD and ADHD," she said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people identifying as ‘neurodiverse’ but as healthcare professionals we need to remain objective.”

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