Self-harm, autism and “personality disorder”

  • June 17, 2024

It isn’t uncommon to find personal accounts of the experience of being diagnosed with autism in adult life. Typically, such accounts comment on what a shame it is that the author wasn’t diagnosed earlier in life – perhaps because they are female and autism was thought to be near non-existent in girls. Quite often the benefit (or the one assumed to have been missed) comes from the simple fact of being able to put a name to difficulties in day-to-day experience of which the individual is already aware but for thinking about which they had no vocabulary.

One subset of these accounts comes from people whose experience, perhaps not so day-to-day, has come from contact with mental health services. The new diagnosis sheds light on what has been problematic about previous encounters and (with luck) what might be done differently in the future.

To a considerable extent in psychiatry (and to some extent in the whole of medicine) diagnosis depends upon pattern-matching. It can work well to produce quick results in situations where speed is important, but it can go wrong. For example, a topic of much recent discussion has been the problems caused because diagnostic “patterns” are derived from clinical practice and research that privileges male examples. In relation to autism the problem is that the presentation of distress does not match the expected pattern – social awkwardness, apparent lack of engagement, seeming detachment, coupled with difficulty in articulating the emotional problem, these do not create the picture we are taught to anticipate in somebody during an emotional crisis.

One area where this can play out is in the assessment of self-harm. It isn’t clear how common it is, but it is likely that at least for some people the mismatch between expected and actual presentation of distress leads to a diagnosis of (guess what) personality disorder. Recently I was alerted to a blog discussing this possibility. I liked it for two reasons. It concludes with noting that “autism” in this context is a way of naming “difference rather than defect or disorder”. I prefer this approach to the alternative “BPD is really … (cPTSD, autism or whatever)” because of its emphasis on the need to consider diversity rather than diagnosis; the former applies to everybody while the latter does not. And, unusually in my reading experience, it offers some practical (and realistic) advice about what to do if you are in this predicament.

An important question raised by this thoughtful blog is the possibility of challenging and overturning a previous diagnosis of personality disorder. Not, I gather, a suggestion that has played well with the clinicians with whom it has been raised so far, but I have the impression that the blog’s author, fortunately, won’t be giving up the attempt any time soon…

Allan House

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