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Horizon: Living with Autism, BBC2 - review


In 1708 the Scottish nobleman Hugh Blair was born in Borgue. His repetitive behaviour and obliviousness to social clues is one of several cases introduced to us by the psychologist Professor Uta Frith in Horizon: Living with Autism.

The word may only have been coined 50 years ago, but, as our warm, engaging host demonstrated, a better understanding isn't only useful to autistic people and their families, it deepens our understanding of humanity.

We learned, for instance, that while living with autism presents difficulties, it needn't be tragic. Kenny, a 15-year-old Londoner, is one of the "savants" popularly associated with the condition, although, in fact, only about 10 per cent of autistic people have abilities like Kenny.

His exceptional talent for mental arithmetic means he can tell you the week day that any date from the past or future falls on almost instantly. He was also apparently socially aware enough to make a joke of his gift when classmates marvelled: "It's an African thing," he said, casually.

Sarah, another high-functioner, had found a way to mask her autism by mimicking others. She even had a live-in long-term relationship with Keith, another person with the condition whom she met on the internet, "where all socially awkward people go to find each other".

It's easy to find the human interest angle in Sarah's steely determination, or boy wonders like Kenny, but Horizon: Living with Autism's greater achievement was to tell the story of 57-year-old Joe Allison, whose communication abilities were more limited. Frith had first met him as a child, 50 years ago, at the beginning of her career.

It was therefore a very personal pleasure to see him again as an adult, thriving in a life made more content by her own research.