Asperger’s, autism, and special talent

Submitted by AWL on 16 October, 2008 - 5:58 Author: Janine Booth

On Sunday 5 October, my son Joe and his dad went to the “Autism and Music” concert at the Savoy Theatre in London. It was promoted by the Autism Research Centre, which is based at Cambridge University and headed up by Professor Simon Baron Cohen.

Most people hear about the difficulties associated with autism and Asperger 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 at the ICA later that week — was to show this more positive side of autistic spectrum disorders.

Speaking about the concert in advance, Baron Cohen also acknowledged also that life on the autistic spectrum can be hard, but went seamlessly into asserting that the condition can bring strengths and talents as well as obstacles.

Unlike illnesses, such as cancer, our approach to autism is not 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 Rain Man. 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.

Joe and his dad both got something out of the show. On the way home they talked about Joe’s condition and how other people have it and can do cartwheels on stage and play beautiful music. Joe has a love of music, an endless enthusiasm for producing works of art, and a confident ability with numbers.

Joe was specifically interested in the phrase from one of the artists that the only thing she did not like about autism was the bullies who bully autistic people: he certainly understood that. It was a great experience because families with autistic kids often feel alone. Having a child with Asperger syndrome can make us more open-minded and tolerant of people’s differences.

Simon Baron Cohen’s ideas challenge common prejudices about the autistic spectrum, and can be very helpful to those of us parenting kids on the spectrum. But some autistic activists question his “expertise” as not representative of their own experience. Baron Cohen is an academic, a researcher, not a political activist. We surely need both. Baron Cohen is not a spokesperson for autistic people — that is something best done through self-organisation and political activism. But it seems to me that his work is nonetheless useful.

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

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