Today I noticed an article on the New Scientist website which stated that “The astonishing ability of many children with autism to rapidly locate concealed on-screen symbols falls apart in an experiment that mimics hunting for objects in the real world.” But what does this actually tell us about autism?
This is a question I had asked earlier this year when scientists supposedly came up with a 15 minute brain scan which could detect, with 90% accuracy, whether someone had Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I spoke a little about the pitfalls of diagnostic scans in my blog on ‘lie detecting’ brain scans and Carl Heneghan outlines the shortfalls of an autism diagnosis scan in this superb article. But it’s not just the questionable diagnosis which irritates me; what does understanding structural differences in the brains of those who suffer from autism actually tell us about the disorder?
I tweeted this question earlier today, and found my post retweeted by Autisable, “Real Blogs from People Tackling the Puzzle of Autism”. I spent some time reading some of the blogs posts on the site; they are incredible, and genuinely moved me. I have a cousin who has autism, and I can recognize aspects of her story in the posts.
According to the National Autistic Society “there are over 500,000 people with autism in the UK – that’s 1 in 100. Together with their families, that’s over two million people whose lives are touched by autism every single day.” There are many different theories about autism. Professor Baron Cohen’s believes that autism results from having an extreme male brain, while Professor Synder’s believes that autism occurs when the brains ‘natural brakes’, usually allowing us to block out much of the overwhelming amount of information the human body receives, are released. But in each theory there are exceptions and errors, and there are a multitude of possible causes associated with autism.
My beautiful cousin, Charlotte, exhibits many of the symptoms classically associated with autism. She used to, and still does, frequently find social situations incredibly difficult to deal with. I vividly remember when, as younger children, we would spend time playing on the living room floor at our grandparent’s house. As games got more boisterous or complicated, she would often just leave the room and retreat into a quieter, simpler world that she found easier to understand. As a particularly out-going and loud child, I just couldn’t understand why she would do this. But autistic children do not intuitively know how to communicate and interact like other children so naturally do. Classic autistic traits also include difficulty in reading no-verbal information as well as recognising people’s emotions and expressing their own.
But, even though we are yet to understand why this happens, we can find ways for people to communicate with the world. Charlotte is an intelligent, compassionate and hilarious young lady. She just can’t quite get that across sometimes. One thing that has helped her improve her interactions is developing her phenomenal musical abilities. She has done this, not only through the love and support of our family, but during her time at The Orpheus Centre.
Orpheus was founded by entertainer and musician Richard Stilgoe in 1998, and promotes personal development through the performing arts, encouraging the transition into independent living for young disabled adults. Charlotte is at home on the stage, a true performer. Through her performance she can communicate with the world, and it is a real joy to see. In the last year I have twice had the privilege to see ‘Orpheus: A Musical’, an amazing theatrical performance that Richard Stilgoe wrote specially for the centre. It moved me to tears both times.
For the moment, we don’t need to understand why autism happens; we just need to understand how to allow these wonderful individuals interact with the rest of the world.