Tag Archives: Misdiagnosis

Attachment Disorder vs. Autism: An Overview and My Personal Experience

I am currently reading the book A Guide to Mental Health Issues in Girls and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum by Judy Eaton. I’m only halfway through the second chapter and it’s so incredibly validating. The book talks about misdiagnosis and co-occurring diagnosis of many psychiatric conditions in autistic girls and young women. I can relate to so much of it.

One concept that I found resonated particularly with me was “secondary misdiagnosis”. This refers to a situation where, while a woman was diagnosed as autistic initially, somewhere along the way, her diagnostic records “disappear” and she is rediagnosed as something else. Yes, that’s me! The book has a UK-based focus and I have been told quite often that, in the NHS, your records automatically move where you go. This is not the case here in the Netherlands: you have to transfer them yourself. Apparently though, in the UK, records can disappear too.

In the second chapter, the author discusses misdiagnosis of autistic girls as having an attachment disorder, disruptive behavior disorder or (emerging) personality disorder. Today, I will talk about attachment disorders.

In August of 2016, I demanded an independent second opinion on my autism diagnosis, which my psychologst had removed, for the first time. My psychologist told me she’d set things in motion, but would have to consult with the brain injury unit’s psychiatrist first. After all, my having sustained a brain injury shortly after birth was her primary reason for removing my autism diagnosis. As she returned, the weirdest diagnostic process I’ve ever seen, emerged: she started negotiating diagnoses with me. She said she was willing to diagnose brain injury-related personality change instead of the personality disorder she’d initially diagnosed me with, generalized anxiety disorder and an attachment disorder. I took time to think and eventualy ignored the attahment disorder thing, while reluctantly agreeing to the rest. We still used DSM-IV, after all, where you have to have endured “pathogenic care” to be diagnosed with attachment disorder.

In DSM-5 and the newest edition of the ICD, which was published in 2016, your early childhood still has to have been less than ideal, but the criteria leave room for milder forms of less than optimal care, such as your parents not having been very nurturing. I guess in my case, even with perfect parents (which I don’t have), my premature birth and three months in the hospital would suffice for the current “inadequate or inconsistent care” criterion for reactive attachment disorder.

However, the criteria for RAD say that the child cannot be diagnosed with it if they have an autism spectrum disorder. I understand this doesn’t mean autistic children and adults do not have attachment issues, since I for one do. However, when someone is diagnosable with autism, they cannot be diagnosed with RAD too. In other words, my psychologist ought to have ruled out autism – which she did a pretty poor job of doing – before trying to label me with RAD.

There are several features of attachment disorder that overlap with autism and particularly with pathological demand avoidance. For example, children with attacchment disorder as well as those with PDA can be superficially charming (in order to get what they want), indiscriminately affectionate with unfamiliar adults and inaffectionate with primary caregivers. Both are often defiant or manipulative. They also both can be controlling or bossy. Children with RAD are however more likely to be cruel to animals or other people or destructive towards property. They often show a preoccupation with such things as fire, blood, death or gore. Autistic children as well as those with RAD may avoid eye contact, but RAD children do make eye contact particularly when lying.

Judy Eaton outlines several distinguishing features between autism and attachment disorder. In the ICD-10, the following are mentioned:

  • Children who have a reactive attachment disorder will have the underlying ability to react and respond socially.

  • When abnormal social reciprocity is noted in children with reactive attachment disorder, it will tend to improve significantly when the child is placed in a more nurturing environment.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not display the types of unusual communication seen in children with autism.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not have the unusual cognitive profile often observed in children with autism.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not display the types of restricted interests or repetitive behaviours seen in children with autism.

I definitely see how I have attachment issues. I am usually more open to strangers than to my own parents. Particularly as a teen, I’d also direct most of my aggression towards my mother. I could also be quite defiant. I however also definitely have communication oddities, repetitive behaviors and restricted interests and an unusual cognitive profile. I never “recovered”, though that could be blamed on the fact that I lived with my apparently inadequate parents till I was nineteen. Or it could be that I’m autistic.

G – #AtoZChallenge on Mental Health

Welcome to the #AtoZChallenge on mental health, letter G. This was a pretty hard letter for me, so most of the words I chose are not specifically related to mental health.


There is an increasing interest in gender-specific medicine, ie. medical research and practice that takes into account how medical (including psychiatric) conditions affect women differently from men. For example, autism spectrum disorders and ADHD used to be thought of as typically male conditions whereas borderline personalitty disorder was thought to affect females primarily. It now turns out that many women have been misdiagnosed with for instance BPD when they really have an ASD and/or ADHD. The reverse is also true: eating disorders are stereotypically thought of as female disorders, so men with eating disordes often remain undiagnosed.

Men and women also differ in their treatment-seeking patterns. Women seek counseling more often, whereas men are overrepresented in psychiatric hospitals and are sectioned or taken into forensic treatment more often.


When DSM-5, the current edition of the psychiatrist’s manual, was being prepared, initially they wanted to use a dimensional diagnosis with genetics on one axis. However, they finally decided too little is known about the gentics of mental illness yet. Mental illness is not a purely genetic thing and it isn’t purely caused by life events. For example, when I studied psychology in 2007, there was some recent research into the interplay between a particular gene called the lazy MAO A gene and one’s upbringing in causing antisocial behavior. MAO A is an enzyme that breaks down certian neurotransmitters in the brain. When people have the lazy MAO A gene, they produce too little of this enzyme. This is linked to antisocial behavior. However, even if a person had this lazy gene, upbringing played a role in the risk for developing conduct disorder in childhood and antisocial personality disorder in adulthood. The two factors together cause people to become antisocial.


Geriatrics is the branch of medicine specializing in older people and diseases of the elderly. Geriatrists may work in mental health care, but more often on units for people with neurocognitive disorders (dementia). The city institution I used to reside in had several units for older people, some of whch specialized in neurocognitive disorsers where behavior was particularly dysregulated. On these units, geriatrics and psychiatry are combined.


Everyone in the Netherlands (and other countries with socialized healthcare) is entitled to the care of a general practitioner (G). Most peope in long-term inpatient mental health treatment don’t have a GP where they used to live. I for one have yet to find a GP near the tiny village. Therefore, the hospital employs GPs. GPs in mental hospitals do not generally involve themselves with the patients’ mental health and psychiatrists do not generally take care of the patients’ physical health. In this sense, a GP in a mental hospital has a different role than in the community. In the community, GPs are the gatekeeper to all care whether it’s mental or physical, after all.