Firstly however, we need to tackle a few terms and do some 'jargon busting.' The field of autism is an ever growing one, and as such I will start by going through how most researchers in the field look at autism now, and run through some terminology which I will continue to use in this series.
Autism is a condition first described by Leo Kanner in his seminal 1943 work where he described a group of children who displayed communicative problems, repetitive physical movements (for example, hand flapping) and difficulties in learning and operating language. Around the same time, Hans Asperger worked with another set of children with similar problems but without as much difficulties in language development.
This is extremely important, primarily because even from this early phase, it becomes clear that there is a wide range of abilities within this one umbrella term of autism. However, it is only recently (2013) that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders or DSM collates the two conditions under one; Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC). More on the names a little later.
For a long time, ASD was seen as a binary condition, which means, you either have it, or you do not. This changed once researchers started looking at ASD as a Spectrum (the term is first coined by Lorna Wing). This means that as opposed to a binary condition, we now start using terms like 'traits'. Therefore, if we start imaging that the condition is more like a line, where the severity of the traits push you to one end of the spectrum or the other.
This makes the condition a lot easier to understand, and is one way in explaining the range of different abilities expressed by individuals with autism. As with most things, it is not that simple, but I will leave that for another time.
When you start looking at autism as traits and not a condition, you begin to realise that, like all of us, individuals with autism do not all have the same strengths or difficulties. Some of them might have more difficulties than others; many of whom can function in society and have jobs and families. Here we tackle a misconception of autism.
A diagnosis of autism does not mean that that individual now cannot function in society anymore, or that they need specialised help and guidance. There are cases where that is the reality, but not always. If we start looking at the condition closely and recognising that many people you may know share certain traits, we remove this concept of 'us' and 'them' and start seeing all of us as people. This distinction is incredibly important.
In this very short article, we have tried to examine the origins of autism, where we currently sit in terms of research, and how maybe our entire perspective on ASD need to be adapted and focus more on inclusion as opposed to separation. We understand that there are a lot more issues to address and queries need to be answered.
But this is what I hope this column to become, a place where we can, as a collective unit, discuss both the cutting-edge research in the field of autism, as well as tackle social understanding of the condition.