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The case of Gary McKinnon, the British Hacker facing extradition to the USA still rumbles on. I confess to a degree of scepticism when I first read about the case. McKinnon was subsequently diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism 3 years after the alleged crime and I cynically wondered whether this label had been acquired in the hope of mitigating the situation?

My interest in McKinnon was piqued as my own son is autistic, otherwise I would have given this story no more than a passing thought.  Was this an individual using a conveniently acquired retrospective diagnosis to wriggle out of the misdemeanour they had committed, a slur on those who are genuinely are affected by this condition, tarnished by association? Yet the more I read the more sympathetic I became. It transpired this was a man who had had difficulties for years masked by intellect and passive behaviour. Was this vulnerable individual really trying to mount a cyber terrorist attack or was it simply the result of an misguided autism-driven obsession? His mother is not asking that he escape justice, rather that he is tried in British Courts with any sentence served in the British penal system rather than the American Courts which have poor track record regarding mental health and autism. There is a high profile campaign running which has the support of the media, celebrities, politicians and even Sarah Brown. All to no avail, the Home Secretary still states that McKinnon must be deported to face justice the other side of the pond. Where is our compassion? We can release the foreign terrorist convicted of the Lockerbie bombings on health grounds but cannot extend some compassion to this British National

My son is still a child, it is hard to imagine him as adult. Could the predicament Mr McKinnon finds himself in be played out in my son’s future?  My son, unlike McKinnon, has had the advantage of being diagnosed with autism as a child and benefiting from therapeutic interventions and increasing awareness that will hopefully help support him in adult life. Adults undiagnosed with autism are left languishing trying to make sense of a confusing neurotypical world, a square peg in a round hole. Is is any wonder McKinnon retreated into a comforting world of obsessions? No wonder the incidence of mental health problems in this group are high.

Autism is a hidden disability. I have seen the hurtful glances and heard the barely disguised mutters of disapproval at certain aspects of my son’s autistic behaviour assuming he is yet another badly behaved child who ought to know better.  I am equally grateful to those individuals who interpret my son’s sometimes eccentric or boisterous behaviour or his distress in certain situations sympathetically.  The censure of my child from those who make incorrect assumptions may be limited to glares and tuts, the condemnation of McKinnon may lead to him languishing in an American prison for the rest of his life.

Let’s not forget his mother who has spoken out from the heart about her son’s plight. Ultimately this is the story of a mother fighting to protect her son. Today is World Autism Awareness Day. I pray that increasing awareness of the impact of autism has will ensure that this vulnerable man is treated with the fairness and compassion he deserves

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Latest rumours circulating suggest that as a result of ‘efficiency savings’ and cut-backs, local hospitals will have to shed 1000 members of staff, close 200 beds and see less patients in clinic. Naturally, the local populace will obliging be less ill. This of course is a nonsense. It is well known that during times of economic hardship, demand for health services grow, especially in areas such as mental health. Additionally, the recession has led to a boom in births, maybe as people take stock of what is important (or indulge in leisure pursuits that are free of charge). It is worrying then that historically whenever cuts are made in the health budgets, it is Children’s and Women’s services, along with Mental Health Services, that are the first in line for the axe.

Some time ago, the local hospital received financial support to expand and enhance services. Circumstances led to the funding being scaled back and improvements to the Children’s Hospital were the first thing to be axed. The same hospital is now looking to merge Women’s and Children’s Services as a first-line measure in cost savings, an agreement that will surely fail to benefit either party aside from the accountants.

Mental Health Services are strapped for cash at the best of times, and are well-known to be Cinderalla services in times of need. Mental Illness is not perceived as ‘sexy’ or at the forefront of medicine. Neither is there going to be a big public outcry, either due to stigma behind mental illness, or a misguided but prevailing view that mental illness is neither life threatening and those suffering are somehow responsible for their plight. Sadly, the mentally unwell are less likely to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

The shortages in midwives and poor standards of care in some maternity units has been well documented over recent years. It is with some trepidation that I consider what the effect of further cuts will be upon healthcare for women of childbearing-age, particularly in view of the current baby boom.

However, the fact that children’s medical services are often in the firing-line surprises me. Any parent knows the pit of worry you experience when your child is unwell, anxiously checking for rashes that don’t disappear and fretting that the tummy-ache could be incipient appendicitis. Aren’t we a nation of child lovers? Don’t we want to invest in the health of the future? Surely children are a fluffy, vote-winning, feel-good priority? It seems not. Why? Is it cynical to suggest this is because children are not voters? Whilst the parents may be on the electoral register there seems to be little resistance to cutbacks that affect their offspring. Does the general public place a higher degree of importance on shorter waiting lists for cardiac surgery, outpatient appointments, or not hanging around for half a day waiting to be seen in the Accident and Emergency Departments? Politicians certainly do as these things are easily measurable and bandied about at an indicator of a ‘Good Practice’. The problem is that many Children’s Services cannot be as easily compartmentalised nor are inadequacies in these areas reflected as much in hospital league tables as adult services.

In times of peril women and children are put first. It would seem that this adage is still be applied; this time in cutting health services for women and children first. There are difficult economic decisions ahead and I envy not those charged with commissioning healthcare services in the current financial climate. I just hope that the vulnerable groups or those without a voice at the ballot box are not left by the wayside.

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