What do you think of when you think about autism? Is it a TV character like Jake, from Kiefer Sutherland’s recent series ‘Touch’, or perhaps Sheldon from ‘The Big Bang Theory’? Or is it a movie character like the savant that Dustin Hoffman played in ‘Rain Man’? They are common stereotypes, but they only depict a tiny fraction of the autism that is all around us every day. Chances are, you would run into people every day who have autism. Would you be able to pick them?
The current point prevalence rate of autism is given by various international health bodies including the World Health Organization, as one person in a hundred. With a prevalence of one percent of the population as having autism, you would think it would be better known, better dealt with by teachers, better handled by public officials, better screened and managed by health workers, and better resourced in terms of assistance to families and in terms of research dollars.
But while funding and recognition are important, the greatest impact that the lack of autism awareness has is the human cost. It is the cost that can’t be measured in terms of dollars, caused by the maligned stigma that having autism brings.
Autism at the less severe end, what used to be called ‘high functioning’ autism, or what I prefer to classify as (the now unofficial diagnosis of) Aspergers Syndrome, doesn’t make a person look that much different on the outside. But it makes their behaviour somewhat odd to everyone else. They have quirks. They have strange mannerisms. They have rigid ways of doing things. They have very narrow interests. They misread social cues.
“Normal” people don’t like odd. Especially children. If you don’t fit in to their particular group-think view of the world, their intolerant tormenting can be merciless and unrelenting. Some people never grow up though, and many adults with autism can be marginalised by their adult peers. Every barb, joke and isolating experience eroding at the soul of a person with autism until there is nothing left.
This is the most destructive of all. It is death by a thousand insults.
I am writing this series of blogs because I want to help assist in whatever way I can to reduce the ignorance surrounding autism. There is still so much ignorance out there – simple ignorance because the message is still diffusing through our social networks, and obstinate ignorance, by people who use pseudoscientific scare mongering to promote their views, or promote bogus treatments for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the desperation of some of those who live with autism.
No matter which form of ignorance is out there, ignorance is ignorance and it does the same damage. It needs to be stopped.
When I was a little boy, I was odd. It took me a while before I started talking. I had an obsession with vacuum cleaners and watches. I was the misfit, or the loner. I was incessantly bullied in the latter half of primary school and almost all the way through high school. I didn’t want to go out and be with large groups of other kids. My parents made me go to marshall arts training, cub scouts, church groups and school holiday excursions.
I hated those social outings. I had huge anxiety being in these large groups. Even when I wasn’t being mocked or belittled, I still felt anxious because I didn’t naturally fit in with the other kids. The leaders of the group would go out of their way to include me but that had the opposite effect of highlighting how much of a social misfit I was. The anxiety was disabling when I was in middle high school.
Thankfully I was smart, mainly in maths and science. Academic achievement was my only positive, so I took refuge in studying. I graduated in the top percentile in my state, and made it into medical school. I did a whole medical degree, five years in hospitals including several in subspecialty paediatrics, and a fellowship in General Practice, and another eight years of GP experience, before my son was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
Despite years of medical training, It’s only been since my son’s diagnosis that I have been realising just how much of my quirky behaviour and social dysfunction was due to the fact that I’m on the spectrum too. All those years, I thought I was retarded, socially incompetent, a freak. All those years, I was bullied, harassed and made to think I was stupid, just because I didn’t naturally understand the unspoken social codes , but no one explained them to me.
That’s nearly forty years of living with self-doubt, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and various mental health issues, because I never knew, because no one else knew, because of ignorance and intolerance.
So it stings when I hear people spread mistruths about ASD, and it pains me when the mistruths are spread by people who should know better. It makes me mad when the mistruths come from self-titled ‘experts’.
I don’t want my son going through the same stigma and denigration, or anyone else on the spectrum for that matter. The truth about autism – what it is, what it is caused by, and what strengths autism bestows, need to hold sway so that death by a thousand insults is no longer tolerable in our progressive society.
I will publish further blog posts over the coming days to weeks on what autism is, on why it seems to be increasing, and the latest scientific evidence on what autism may be caused by. I will devote a whole blog (or two) to the misinformation surrounding vaccines and autism. So stay tuned.