AUTISTIC adults have been wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic and incarcerated for up to 30 years, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Experts fear up to 20 Scots have been mistakenly branded a danger to themselves or others and locked up in psychiatric hospitals where they are given inappropriate drugs.
Doctors and campaigners blame a lack of Scottish expertise in adult autism for the mistaken diagnoses and have called for an urgent government inquiry.
Last night, health minister Malcolm Chisholm called on psychiatrists to review diagnoses if they have any doubts.
Paul Shattock, director of the Autism Research Unit at Sunderland University, said he was "worried sick" by the Scottish cases which had been brought to his attention by relatives.
Shattock said: "This is unwarranted incarceration. They have effectively been silenced and their relatives have been powerless to help them.
"I have been contacted by about eight parents from Scotland and I fear this may be the tip of the iceberg. I believe there may be up to 20 people in this situation."
Shattock added: "There is no doubt that this has been going on for a long time and there may well be some individuals who have been misdiagnosed and treated inappropriately for up to 30 years. These patients are given medication appropriate for schizophrenia, which makes them worse, and they are given more and more medication as a result."
Tomorrow the Public Health Institute of Scotland is due to publish an alarming report into autism services in Scotland, which is expected to identify serious failings.
An estimated 500,000 people in the UK and 28,000 Scots are affected by autism, but the number of Scots adults with the condition is not known.
Symptoms range from total withdrawal and an inability to communicate to difficulties with change and obsessive tendencies. Some could be mistakenly associated with schizophrenia.
Psychologist Dr Ken Aitken, a leading autism expert, said he had come across about a dozen cases of people with autistic spectrum disorder who he believes have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenics. Some were kept in secure psychiatric units.
"These are adults who I believe have some autistic spectrum disorder but have been diagnosed as having schizophrenia or some severe anxiety disorder," he said.
Aitken added that autistic adults had been diagnosed as schizophrenic before autism and Asperger’s syndrome - a form of autism where sufferers are typically of average or above intelligence - were recognised by psychiatrists, and have not been re-assessed. He called for an inquiry to find out how many were misdiagnosed.
Aitken said: "There has to be a systematic review to find out how many people fall into this category. There may well be a large number of people who were given a particular mental health label which was appropriate for that time but whose diagnosis has not been revisited. I know it has happened and it is probably still happening."
Last night, a spokesman for the Scottish Society for Autism confirmed the doctor’s fears. "There is no doubt that there are autistic adults in Scotland who have been misdiagnosed, particularly those with Asperger’s syndrome."
In December, an attempt by the BBC to highlight such cases had to be shelved following legal action by Fife Primary Care NHS Trust.
The programme was to have featured a 25-year-old man who is being treated for schizophrenia in a secure unit in Fife after being sectioned under the Mental Health (Scotland) Act. His parents are adamant he is autistic.
However, hospital chiefs obtained an interim interdict in the Court of Session in Edinburgh - effectively banning the Frontline Scotland programme. Critics argued the legal move swept the problem under the carpet.
Lloyd Quinan, convener of the Scottish parliament’s cross-party group on autism, yesterday backed the calls for a government inquiry. "These people are falling foul of rules in hospitals and end up being controlled with cocktails of drugs."
Last night, Chisholm said: "Misdiagnosis in the past is a possibility, but we would expect health professionals to review their diagnoses where there is doubt."
Dr Jim Dyer, director of the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland - the government’s watchdog for mentally ill patients - said he did not believe there was a major problem. with autistic adults being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.
"While I am not saying it hasn’t happened, I don’t think it is a large problem," he said. "I do believe that in some cases parents find it hard to accept that a patient has schizophrenia and prefer to think it is some other condition."