The family of an autistic teenager has hit out at the new way people are assessed to determine whether they are suitable for work.
Christina Alexopolus was diagnosed with autism at the age of seven and needs constant supervision of her mum to carry out day-to-day activities – but was still deemed fit to work by the department of Work and Pensions.
Her mum, Kirstey Rhodes, has now had the decision – following an assessment to see whether she was eligible for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – overturned.
Christina, of Sea Winnings Way, South Shields, went before the assessment panel when she turned 16 –having been on the high rate for the care component and a low rate for the mobility component for the last 10 years, because of her need of round-the-clock care and constant supervision.
Following the assessment– carried out by Atos – it was decided she was suitable for working.
This is despite her inabulity to interact and communicate with others at a suitable level, undertake a journey on her own, understand her medication needs and health and hygiene requirements.
Following the assessment – which led to Christina’s personal individual payments being stopped as well as her mum’s carers allowance – the family launched an appeal and won.
Ms Rhodes said: “Sitting there listening to her saying she could do all this stuff, when I know she can’t, was heartbreaking.
“She was saying those things because she hates people to think she has a disability. I tried to intervene and explain but the assessor didn’t want to know what I had to say and I also didn’t want to say too much as I didn’t want to drag Christina down.”
She added: “They should have interviewed me separately, so I could tell them what my daughter is capable of, or even come out to the home to see what she is capable of doing.
“It is worrying that these people who are supposed to know what they are doing have in this case got it so wrong. This whole process has put myself and Christina through so much stress. It is such a horrendous process and they really shouldn’t be questioning young people in this way.”
Ms Rhodes has been backed by the National Autistic Society (NAS), which also has reservations about the new assessment system.
Sarah Lambert, head of policy at the NAS, said: “PIP is a lifeline for many autistic people, but far too many autistic people find the assessment stressful and some tell us that it simply doesn’t recognise their hidden difficulties.
“People on the autism spectrum often need help getting across the challenges they face to assessors, due to their difficulties interacting with others.
“We’ve heard reports that assessors don’t always have a general understanding of autism, its impact and how to make the assessment accessible.
“This is deeply concerning and means that some autistic people are being wrongly refused vital support.”
Ms Rhodes added: “Christina has a long documented history of low self-esteem issues and suffers from depression. She gets overwhelmed by noise and sensory input and sometimes needs to be completely alone. Sometimes she will refuse to communicate verbally at all, and if pushed to talk, will react with anger and aggression.
“She can come across as rude and very opinionated, she has a tendency to read signs and information with an absolute literal approach and has a huge fear of men, convinced most men have a predatory sexual interest in her.
“How can the assessor seriously have considered Christina able to go into a workplace and carry out tasks when she has so many interpersonal issues with being around people communication?”
A DWP spokesmansaid: “Decisions on whether someone is eligible for Personal Independence Payment are made after consideration of all the evidence, including an assessment and information provided by the claimant and their GP. Claimants who are unhappy with the decision can appeal.”
‘Should I lock myself away so I don’t offend anyone’
Christina has allowed the Gazette access to her diary, in which she writes how having autism makes her feel and berates herself, describing herself as “rude, horrible and disgusting”.
She began writing down her thoughts after receiving a book as a birthday present from a friend ahead of her assessment.
In one extract, she wrote: Finally, I’ll learn how to survive by myself. Should I lock myself away, so I don’t offend anyone?
“I can deal with my feelings myself – I can’t trust anyone.
“She’ll read this (her mum), they’ll read this. Your scared, I am scared too; I am rude, horrible, disgusting, stubborn. That’s what you want to hear? Right?
“I hate my autism. I didn’t ask for this, Stop blaming me. I don’t want to smile.
“When a lion or wolf is old enough it starts its own pack. I need my own pack of people.
“I love you, I hate you. I am such an EMO.”
In another extract she describes how she hates to talk or write about her autism, but it was something that kept coming back to haunt her.
She wrote: “A flow that you don’t know how to get rid of. I am not going to pretend to be nice. I see many children with autism as creepy, stupid or just scared of them.
“There’s something unnerving about some of the less fortunate, mentally disabled, speaking in weird screams and moans, rocking back and forth.
“Large foreheads and rat- like faces. Small, beading eyes and slightly off, sounding voices.
“I am a horrible person. I don’t want to be under the same label as them. I am sorry.
“I am a weird autistic child. I am disabled. I am a moron, I am retarded and there’s nothing I can do to change that.
“I have so much to say and not enough time to say it. I want to talk to someone but I can’t trust anyone.
“The autism clubs and carers’ clubs made me feel worse. The people who I do trust are either too young, think I’m joking due to my dark sense of humour or don’t know how to deal with it.
“I don’t want to go to a psychiatrist because I don’t know them, stranger danger. They’re hollow inside. I know what’s right and wrong socially, but I never seem to act upon it.”