Autism may represent the last great prejudice we, as a society, must overcome. History is riddled with examples of intolerance directed at the atypical. We can sometime fear that which diverges from the “norm”, and sometimes that fear leads us to frame those who are different as being in some way lesser beings than ourselves.
Intolerances take generations to overcome. Racism is an obvious, ugly example. Other horrifying examples are easy to find: take, for instance the intolerance faced by the gay community. Countless gay people were diagnosed with “sociopathic personality disturbance” based upon their natural sexuality. Many were criminalised and forced into institutions, the “treatments” to which they were subject akin to torture. How many believed they were sociopathic and hated themselves, wishing to be free from the label they had been given? How many wished to be “cured” so that they could live their lives in peace? The greatest crime was the damage perpetuated by the image projected upon them by those claiming to be professionals.
Autism is framed as a disability, with mainstream theories presenting autism via deficit models. Popular theory is often passed off as fact with no mention of the morphic nature of research and scientific process. Most mainstream theory is silent regarding autistic strengths and atypical ability; indeed, what is in print often presents a damning image of autism as an “epidemic”. Hurtful words such as risk, disease, disorder, impairment, deficit, pedantic, obsession are frequently utilised.
A recent genetic study involving identical and non-identical twins identified that 56-95% of the observed characteristics are genetic in origin: autism owes its existence to genetic differences known as polymorphisms. There is no patent for optimal human genetics: genetic differences between individuals, families and groups naturally vary. Species diversify via genetic change all the time; when those changes are positive they are passed to the next generation. Autism is an example of natural variation. Current estimates are that 1 in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum: that translates to around 641,000 people in Britain. If autism were truly a disease, something of detriment, why do autistic variants of genes perpetuate? Why not ask the UK security services, currently employing 10% of its staff from our “neurodivergent” population, including people on the autistic spectrum.
Much current autism research, establishing medical treatment options into drugs, cures and pre-natal screening is funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Such programmes raise many questions, not least because often autistic people seek the right to be valued as equal, yet divergent, members of society, rejecting the notion of disability. Consequently there is an unease at the thought of the pharmaceutical industry, which has a vested interest in perpetuating a “disease model” of autism for eventual profit, being involved with such research. Treatments could be sold to 1% of the population, their human characteristics reduced to mere symptoms. The pitch seems easy: convince the world this group are a problem, then convince the target group.
A common misconception around autism is that it is inextricably linked to intellectual disability. However, many of the world’s great thinkers and innovators displayed autistic characteristics. “Autism and intellectual disability often occur together in clinical settings, and this has made many researchers think that the conditions must share the same genetic causes. Our research challenges this assumption,” says Dr Rosa Hoekstra, lecturer in psychology at the Open University, who led a recent study which found that the genes for autism are distinct from those for learning disabilities. Autistic people exhibit a range of intellectual ability, including exceptional intellect. An obvious cause of this discrepancy is that very intellectually able people are less likely to be diagnosed. Furthermore, some diagnosticians actively withhold diagnoses in those deemed to be coping.
Diagnosed or not, an autistic person knows they are different and has the right to know they belong to a distinct minority group. The classic image of autism is incorrect. 75% of autistic people are verbal and learning disability is distinct from autism. Most people will know an autistic person but may not know that they are autistic.
Autistic people are human beings; genetically and neurologically distinct, but thinking and feeling people with strengths and challenges outside of average and divergent intuitive learning and communication styles. Society can be narrow minded and overtly conformist.
One struggles to find an autistic person with fond memories of school: most suffer abuse at the hands of their classmates. In adulthood, many live isolated lives, shunned by their communities as “weird,” “odd” and unworthy. Many who are highly educated and successful find “coming out” a terrifying prospect, having learned to communicate and behave in a way everyone else wishes them to, but which is alien to them. This is exhausting and depressing, to know the world does not value them as they are. This parallels the plight faced by the homosexual community, one of “staying in the closet.” Current advice is that autistic people can be more prone to mental health issues than the general population. One could hazard a guess that a childhood plagued by abuse, being an outsider in one’s community and hiding in the closet may hint at the reason: autistic people are human after all.
Autism is an evolutionary branch on the great genetic tree. Autistics are a vulnerable minority, protected by the European convention on human rights. Apathy is the enemy of progress and whilst we sleep, big business may pre-natally diagnose, abort, treat and “cure” an important human group out of existence, Human rights seem to not matter when the human in question has a disability label pinned to them. We must stand together to oppose this injustice and define autistic people as a minority group. Work to include and value autistics for the very real and important contribution they make to society. What is the use of history if we do not learn its lessons?