When a person with autism walks into a room the first thing they see is: a pillow with a coffee stain shaped like Africa, a train ticket sticking out of a magazine, 25 floorboards, a remote control, a paperclip on the mantelpiece, a marble under the chair, a crack in the ceiling, twelve grapes in the bowl… So it’s not surprising that they ignore you completely”- so read an old Autistic Society poster. Many of us are drawn to the mysterious, misty eyed individuals with autism, who despite their infamous social skills, often exhibit extraordinary talents. Popular interest is reflected in the fact that “autism” was the 5th most googled “what is” question in 2014. While scientists work to understand how autistic minds work and in what ways they differ from so-called “neurotypicals”, this ever-deeper understanding does not filter through sufficiently to the general public.
What is it, then, that scientists know about autism that everyone should know? First, in some areas autistic minds supercede those of neurotypicals. They often have an extremely good eye for detail (try a “Where is Wally” contest with a person on the autism spectrum). They exhibit “superior systemizing” – a talent for analyzing and figuring out the workings of even highly intricate systems. They can sustain focus for extended periods of time and often have tremendously good memory. They are more likely to have perfect pitch than neurotypicals. These wonderful feats of the mind seem to come at a price. Difficulties in social interaction, in communication and often rigid and repetitive behaviour patterns have become hallmarks of the condition. Recently, we have begun to think that girls might be better at compensating for their symptoms, but prolonged compensating among both genders often results in secondary conditions such as anxiety or even depression. We know that people vary in terms of severity of their symptoms, with some remaining non-verbal on the one end of the spectrum, and those with Asperger’s Syndrome, who only subtly differ from neurotypicals, on the other. So, as Lorna Wing put it “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.
Why is it important to know all this about autism? The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason is to remove stigma from the condition. While it is often referred to as a “disorder”, implying some dysfunction, scientific evidence only points to developmental and cognitive differences. Differences in terms of preferences for objects rather than people, for systems rather than emotions, and details rather than the big picture. Of course it is a condition that should be diagnosed since it implies vulnerabilities and challenges. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that the word “disorder” has become popular because in the USA one needs such a diagnosis to be entitled for medical insurance. In the context of autism the term should be interpreted with caution. Secondly, there seems to be a gap between what scientists spend most of their efforts on and the needs reported by the autistic community. Two such major needs being employment and inclusion within society.
This is where we can all step in. Why don’t we capitalise on the extraordinary talents of those on the spectrum and help them secure jobs as laboratory technicians, software testers, copy editors, taxi drivers, etc? Currently only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment, although most of them can and want to work. Seventy two years since the official discovery of autism, with some progress made by the academic community, it is time for the general public to discover autism too.
About the author:
Albertyna Paciorek has completed her PhD on implicit learning at the University of Cambridge, after obtaining an MPhil in English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, and a BA in Linguistics from University College London. She is currently teaching what she has learned in the UK to Polish students in her role as an Assistant Professor at the Pedagogical University in Kraków, Poland. She is interested in anything that has to do with the mind/brain and in her free time ponders the parallels between life and long-distance running.