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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Disruptive children ‘could have undiagnosed communication problems’

Embargoed until 01 April 2010

Children at risk of exclusion from school could have autistic behavioural traits, according to new research.

The study, published in the April issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that up to a third of children who are at risk of being excluded from school for disruptive behaviour could have undiagnosed social communication problems of an autistic type.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Child Health (ICH) recruited 26 persistently disruptive children aged 6-13 years old from primary schools in the London borough of Hackney. 16 of the children had been excluded from school at least once before, and 10 were considered by their teachers to be at high risk of exclusion. The researchers interviewed the children’s parents, and the children were given tests of IQ, attention, social cognition and theory of mind.

The researchers found that 9 of the 26 disruptive children (35 per cent) and met clinical criteria for an autism-spectrum disorder. However, their social communications had not been detected by a professional.

Lead researcher Professor David Skuse,head of behavioural and brain sciences at the ICH and manager of the UK’s National Centre for High Functioning Autism at Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Trust (GOSH), said:

“Our research shows that many children who get into trouble at school are being labelled ‘disruptive’ or ‘aggressive’ by their teachers and peers, when in reality they are displaying behaviours that are consistent with traits we see in clinically diagnosed autism. The children involved in our study have been recommended for appropriate treatment and their educational needs should now be recognised and adjusted accordingly.

“Teachers should be supported to identify these children before they are unfairly excluded from school and they miss out on the education and learning opportunities they deserve.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Donno R, Parker G, Gilmour J and Skuse DH (2010) Social communication deficits in disruptive primary-school children, British Journal of Psychiatry, 196: 282-289


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