In December last year, Helen Green Allison MBE passed away. It’s fair to say she wasn’t a household name, but for those who came into contact with her work, her legacy and impact have been immense. As a founder of the National Autistic Society (NAS), she was responsible for creating an organisation that is now the leading UK charity for those with autism.
And yet despite the work of Allison, the NAS and their counterparts throughout the world, autism is still something that remains misunderstood. Over the last few years, in film and TV, a new stereotype has arose – the child with autism who struggles to communicate but who has the innate ability to not only tackle complex mathematical problems but use that to… Well, predict the future, or see the fundamental patterns behind the universe. And this isn’t intended to be anything other than sympathetic, as in Kiefer Sutherland’s new series Touch, but it does portray autism as, effectively, some kind of superpower. Maybe this is a narrative conceit that allows writers and producers to sneak autism awareness onto primetime TV, but how helpful is it really?
Today is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). I have a vested family interest in this and so it’s worth supporting WAAD just so that people can get some idea of what autism and Asperger Syndrome actually are. That’s not an easy job – the autistic spectrum covers such a range of traits at differing levels of severity that everyone needs to be treated as an individual. There are no generic, one-size-fits-all answers.
But this is a good thing, because we all deserve to be treated as individuals; no-one should be labelled by their disability or their diagnosis, they should be labelled by their personality, likes, dislikes, their story and their heart.
That may come across as somewhat idealistic, especially in a world where misunderstandings of autism lead to things like the controversy over whether it’s caused by vaccines or the Gary McKinnon case. But the fact remains that Autistic Spectrum Disorders affect a significant part of the population and anything that can raise awareness of its realities is a positive thing. The child you think is misbehaving in a supermarket as people make muttered comments about poor parenting may be autistic; the socially awkward IT technician at work may have Asperger Syndrome. And each one of them is an individual, not a diagnosis.
(More information on autism is available at the NHS website.)