Autism is possibly one of the most misunderstood cognitive states in modern day society. Over the years the representation (or mis-representation) of individuals within the film industry and within the media has perpetuated many myths associated with the autism population. Films such as Rain Man have certainly raised the awareness of autism, in as much as most people within society will have heard of autism and many will have an opinion as to what it means. Sadly, the reality is that very few have a good understanding of what being autistic actually means to the individual and their families.
Autism is still regarded very much within a medical model - diagnostic criteria and texts related to autism are rife with negative terminology such as 'disorder' and 'impairment'. Rarely do we see a celebration of the fascinating way in which the autistic mind processes information, the abilities that are often found within the autistic population, the value that the autistic person can bring to society. Rarely do we see a social model applied to the autism community.
Rather than assuming that an autistic way of thinking causes problems and is somehow inferior, the social model would urge us to recognise that the myriad of difficulties faced by autistic people are not simply as a result of autism, but are often a result of the lack of understanding among the majority of the rest of the population. That the barriers faced on a daily basis by the individual are not insurmountable, and it is the duty of all involved to circumnavigate those issues with appropriate adjustments, support and understanding in order for the individual to reach their potential.
We are led to believe that autistic people are impaired in their functioning - this is simply not true. Just because a person has a different social skill set, or a different way of communicating to the majority, does not automatically mean that they are impaired. I would argue that autistic people have their own, valid, skill set and that if the Predominant Neurotype (i.e. the non-autistic population) were to make the effort to engage with autistic people with an understanding of that skill set then the imbalanced view of autism may begin to change.
We live in a world that loves to categorise and pigeon-hole. It is impossible (and morally reprehensible) to assume that having an identification of autism means anything other than that the person is autistic. Being autistic does not automatically mean that the person is any less capable as a person than anyone else - in some cases, quite the opposite is true. Nor does it mean that any one autistic person could or should be compared to anyone else.
Each individual with autism is exactly that - an individual. She or he will have their own unique skills profile, strengths, weaknesses, wishes and dreams. It is time that society recognises the potential value of being autistic, and the necessity of learning to understand each individual as a person in their own right.
Dr Luke Beardon is a senior lecturer in autism at Sheffield Hallam University's Autism Centre
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