Last week my work colleagues and I were privileged to receive some excellent training to give us an overview into autism as a spectrum.  It was provided by the Lothian Autistic Society and I can really recommend their training if anyone else is interested.

It was fascinating, at the start of the session, to hear across the full staff team that attended what experience and knowledge each of us had about autism.  I was fairly typical – I’ve worked at times with children who use our services who have autism (usually with Aspergers), I’ve sat in on a previous mini-training session when I was on placement as a student, I’ve read a couple of fantastic books.  And whilst none of my colleagues are approaching any kind of specialist knowledge, we all had a good broad base of understanding – but just didn’t feel like we did.

And that seems to be the funny thing about autism.  It seems so ‘other’ that we don’t feel comfortable with ourselves and our competence when we are with people who are placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Anyway, the training was outstanding and across the board I didn’t hear a single colleague (some of whom are normally default-setting-critical!) say it was any less than excellent and riveting.  What did I learn?  Essentially that autism is a brain difference, which results in the person with the condition responding to and interacting with the world in ways which are so different to us NTs (neurotypicals) it is really hard for us to understand the world from their point of view, and vice versa.

Simon Baron-Cohen (who, slightly bizarrely, is according to Wikipedia a cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen aka Ali G and Borat) is one of the pre-eminent scientists in the field of autism and has led the way with much of the current thinking about the condition, from what I can gather.  One of the most interesting aspects of autism is that it would appear to be the working out of an ‘extreme male brain’.  This has been identified as being because autism seems to arise from an extreme level of testosterone present in a child even before birth.  This is, presumably, why autism is so much more common among males than females.

This has brought autism into the news as it now appears quite possible for there soon to be a prenatal screening test for autism, following on from the publication of a ground-breaking study in the British Journal of Psychology (as it has been described by The Guardian amongst others).  And the big, controversial question which has now sparked a great deal of debate is “would a prenatal screening test for autism be a good thing?”.  The underlying assumption is that parents who discovered their unborn child had autism (although the test would not be able to place them on the autistic spectrum, just give a blunt identification of the condition) would be likely to choose to abort that child. 

I think that would be an understandable choice (I’ve not worked with autistic children who can’t communicate, as they tend not to be in mainstream settings like the one I work in, but have witnessed the enormous challenge and stress families can face when they have a child somewhere on the autistic spectrum).  But the assumption is that autism is something ‘bad’, undesirable in itself.  Most autistic people are physically healthy, and it is believed that in fact it is the more able autists who will suffer through their condition, simply because they are able to interact with the neurotypical world enough to perceive and struggle with their difference to the world at large.  It gets very complicated, and Professor Baron-Cohen articulates the thinking that needs to begin now:

If there was a prenatal test for autism, would this be desirable?  What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?  We should start debating this…Some researchers or drug companies might see this as an opportunity to develop a prenatal treatment.  There are drugs that block testosterone.  But whether we’d want to would be a different matter.

If you want to read more about autism I can thoroughly recommend “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome” by Luke Jackson, which he wrote when he was just 13 – it’s outstanding, insightful and very sweet.  The other book I read a few years back was “George and Sam” by Charlotte Moore, and it too is outstanding, very intelligently and (just as important) intelligibly written. 

I’d love to hear your own thoughts about this debate.