Simon Baron-Cohen: ‘Neurodiversity is the next frontier. But we’re failing autistic people’

Oct 2, 2019 by

Brains come in different types and they’re all normal, but greater understanding has not led to more money for autism, says expert

All different types of brains are normal, but greater understanding has not led to more money for autism, says world-leading expert

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Simon_Baron-Cohen.jpgSimon Baron-Cohen: ‘Brains come in types, and they’re all normal.’

As a graduate in the 1980s, Simon Baron‑Cohen taught autistic children at a special school in London. Little was known about autism then, and people often misheard him, assuming he taught “artistic children”.

“People would be ashamed if they had an autistic child, or ashamed of saying, ‘I am autistic’, whereas now it’s treated as more ordinary and there’s less judgment,” he says. “In the 1980s, autism was seen as categorical, so ‘you either have it or you don’t’ … nowadays, we talk about a spectrum.”

Today, Baron-Cohen, 61, is a world expert on autism, a Cambridge professor and director of the university’s influential Autism Research Centre. There is also greater awareness of autism, a lifelong condition affecting how people interact or process information.

Estimates suggest one in every 100 people is on the autism spectrum (700,000 adults and children), from those with severe developmental disabilities needing intense support, to those with milder traits. Well-known autistic people include campaigner Greta Thunberg (who calls her “difference” a superpower). As a cognitive neuroscientist, Baron-Cohen has helped focus attention, from his pioneering psychological studies (autism was first diagnosed in the 1960s in the UK) to founding the UK’s first diagnosis clinic in Cambridge 20 years ago with charitable funding (today the centre is NHS-run).

Yet his latest research reflects how improved awareness and understanding of autism have not led to improvements in the lives of people with autism. In the studyexploring how autistic adults experience disproportionately more “negative life events”, 45% of the 426 participants say they often lack money to meet basic needs (compared with 25% of non-autistic people) and 20% have been sexually abused by a partner (compared with 9%). The research, involving questionnaires created with autistic people, suggests why those with autism may experience more depression.

These findings add more weight to existing evidence about the significant challenges facing autistic people. Diagnosis can take years; children face cuts to special educational needs provision; just 16% of autistic people had jobs in 2016 (compared with 80% of non-autistic people); and they are among those locked up in secure hospital-style units instead of living in communities. The Autism Act a decade ago obliged the government to create a strategy to improve support, but legislation has fallen short of promises.

Source: Simon Baron-Cohen: ‘Neurodiversity is the next frontier. But we’re failing autistic people’ | Society | The Guardian

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