Is Autism “Ballooning”?

I’ve just had a linked-in “discussion” drop into my inbox, starting with “In the last 20 years, Autism has ballooned across the nation and the medical community is ‘baffled’ as to why this is happening.” It wasn’t really a discussion, more of an advertising pitch, so I didn’t get involved there – but I do have a couple of thoughts on the subject.

The Recognition Curve

Firstly – and I think this is the case with a lot of Learning Differences – whether or not autism autism has actually “ballooned”, certainly the awareness of it has. We now recognise certain traits as being “on the ASD spectrum”, whereas ten years ago the same traits may have just marked someone out as being “different” without defining how. Depending to a certain extent on the policy of the Local Authority, dyslexia was in a similar place on what you might call the “recognition curve” fifteen years or so ago. And ten years ago who had even heard, for example, of Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Yet just because the condition was not on the public radar this doesn’t mean that individuals and families were any less affected by it.

Help! I Need a Label.

So as science continues to extend the boundaries of our understanding we are able to identify different conditions, and with identification comes tailored support, adaptation and in some cases treatment. Unlike in some cultures, where “Special Needs” is still stigmatised, I think we can be proud of our inclusive philosophy in the UK, and because of that I think it’s important that we see the identification of a “Special Need” as a positive guide to understanding, not as a negative label for discrimination. The better we can categorize and define our behaviour, the better we can understand and help each other.

The Bubble that’s Ballooning

Alongside all this – and here’s the other thought – I do think that society is changing in such a way that people can spend much more time in their own private “bubble” than used to be the case. There was a time when the rise of the TV dinner was deplored in some circles for its detrimental effect on family life. Those days are long gone: now a multitude of virtual worlds, digital friends, and all the worst excesses of the internet are available, literally, in the palms of our hands. The nature/nurture debate is an old one, but if we are shaped at all by our environment, isn’t it likely that the time that children can spend cut off from other people by the screen in front of them is going to cause an increase in social communication difficulties? The linguistic root of “aut” ism is “self” ism, and today’s world is surely breeding it.

Bob Hext

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