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Rethinking Autism

In the UK, over the past three decades or so, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of people diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
This astonishing rise is a cause for concern, autism (and other associated conditions, Asperger’s syndrome included) having emerged from nowhere to trouble our children and threaten their future prospects.
Not quite.
This is the picture that the mainstream media likes to paint, yet the truth is rather different.
You see, autism has always been around . . .
It’s just that, until recently – in medical terms, at least – understanding and awareness proved elusive.
Children with difficulties? Undoubtedly, although given that enlightenment is upon us at last, help is at hand.
Prospects? It could be argued that the future has never been brighter.
This is a case that Steve Silberman, a US author and journalist, will make in his latest book, Neuotribes. Having started out as ‘an investigation into the prevalence of autism within the tech bubble of Silicon Valley’, Silberman’s work has ‘evolved into a . . . fascinating dissection of the role autism has played in shaping human history’.
Here at CPUK, we’ve just been reading all about this in The Telegraph.
Needless to say, it has struck quite a chord.
Is it time to look at autism differently?
To stop seeing it as a disability?
To consider it something that is ‘natural and necessary’ for societies to thrive?
Silberman thinks so.
‘The kids [who were] ridiculed as nerds and brainiacs have grown up to be the architects of our future,’ he writes.
Silberman says he has received a telephone call from a supervisor at Microsoft . . .
‘[All the] top debuggers have got Asperger’s syndrome,’ he’s reported to have told him. ‘They’re able to hold hundreds of lines of code in their heads as a visual image. They’re able to look for the flaws in the pattern and that’s where the bugs are’.
Silberman’s focus is on the high-functioning, although he does stress that, for many, autism does pose problems that cannot be underestimated.
Carol Povey, from the National Autistic Society, told The Telegraph that caution must be exercised and her assertion – that ‘we need to recognise that many autistic people and their families do experience real challenges’ – is one that, here at CPUK, we do indeed endorse.
That said, the simple fact that this discussion is taking place underlines the progress that has been made in recent times. That awareness and understanding are greater. That attitudes are changing . . .
That autism shouldn’t be considered a disability, or as Silberman puts it, ‘some modern plague’.
‘It has been part of the human condition for millennia,’ he writes. ‘It’s just that [until now] we haven’t recognised it’.
There’s a chance that, in parts, there is an over-simplification and, as stressed above, we mustn’t overlook the fact that autism does present challenges that must be taken seriously.
Yet in essence, in putting this on the news agenda, in sparking debate, increasing understanding and getting us talking, Silberman’s efforts stand up to scrutiny . . .
This isn’t a modern phenomenon. Troubles can be tackled. Futures can be bright.
The headline in The Telegraph poses a question: Is it time to rethink autism?
To Steve Silberman – and to us – the answer is obvious.

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