Sunday, October 05, 2008

Autism, Asperger's and Special Talents

My son Joe and his dad have just set off to go to the 'Autism and Music' concert at the Savoy Theatre. It is being promoted by the Autism Research Centre, which is based at Cambridge University and headed up by Professor Simon Baron Cohen, who popped up on BBC News 24 to outline its purpose today.

Prof BC explained that most people hear about the difficulties associated with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, including social and communication problems, and obsessions. But the obsessions can also give rise to particular talents, which apparently cluster around music, art and maths. So the idea of the concert - and of an arts exhibition starting at the ICA tomorrow - is to show this more positive side of autistic spectrum disorders.

Good stuff. But I was also impressed by Baron Cohen's balance, as he made sure that he acknowledged also that life on the autistic spectrum can be hard. "Everyone with a diagnosis of autism and Asperger's suffers in some way: that's why they have a diagnosis", he said, but went seamlessly into an asserting that the condition can bring strengths and talents as well as obstacles.

Unlike illnesses, such as cancer, our approach to autism is not just about finding a cure, but about working out interventions that can help overcome the difficulties without diminishing the strengths.

A word of warning, though - don't expect everyone on the autistic spectrum to have some stunning talent. They are not all about to burst into scintillating music, produce a stunning piece of art or juggle numbers like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. And if they don't, they are not letting the autistic side down. Neither are they in any more need of a cure than those who do - they are in need of a society that accepts their neurological difference and deals with it.

So here's hoping that Joe and John have a good time tonight - and that the music isn't too loud, as hypersensitivity to loud music is a trait of Joe's Asperger's. As is a love of music, an endless enthusiasm for producing works of art, and a confident ability with numbers.

Meanwhile, there is obviously a way to go in educating away prejudices about autism and Asperger's. This article on Times Online tries to explain some of the positive aspects of autism, but still manages to call it a disability, a disease and an affliction. Thanks, but no thanks.

Big thanks to Ben for the tickets.

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