Wednesday, 18 July 2012

My first experience with Autism

Autism is no longer a blip on the radar of public consciousness, thanks in part to television programmes like Louis Theroux's Extreme Love (BBC 2012) and to some extent commentary on television characters like Sarah Lund in The Killing. Unfortunately there is still a long way to go before Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) are recognised, accepted, and understood by laymen and clinicians alike. As the saying goes, "Once you've met someone with Autism... you've met someone with Autism." And that's just it - although individuals on the Autism Spectrum share impairments in social interaction, communication, and restricted behaviours, they all fit somewhere along a spectrum.

Last night I began volunteering at Daisy Chain, a charity offering support and respite for families affected by autism, as well as youth groups and a plethora of activities for children and young people diagnosed with an ASC. The session I attended was the Youth Group, and I'd say that the average was around 15. I think the teenagers at this group are classed as having 'High Functioning' Autism - one of the other volunteers invited me to sit down and chat with them, "they're very bright y'know." And so they were.

It really wasn't what I was expecting. The conversations being had were lucid, witty, interesting, and entertaining. Their recall for facts was very impressive, one of them reciting the latin name for a particular breed of alpaca and another sharing his extensive knowledge of Lord of the Rings. In one way, I failed to see how some of them had achieved any kind of diagnosis whatsoever; I'm not sure I would have recognised some of them as having Autism were it not for the fact that they were attending the session.

An impairment in social interaction is one facet of ASCs. The rules of conversation are difficult at best. Knowing when to speak, how to respond, who to look at, how to express disinterestedness without offence... I did notice, at times, a flagrant disregard for these rules when we were sitting in a big group, such as shouting across the table and carrying on the conversation despite the interlocutor turning away. At one point, while talking to someone about driving lessons, a girl to my left started telling me that I was annoying, but she didn't say it just once... rather she repeated 'you're annoying' throughout the best part of my conversational turn.

One boy, quieter than the others, seemed desperate to join in the conversation, but didn't know how to relate to the topic. Instead, he interjected the odd off-topic phrase ("Pie!" seemed to be a favourite) hoping it would catch someone's attention. On one occasion he began speaking, but was overtaken by another and immediately stopping himself, he looked down despondently muttering something.

To some extent this behaviour doesn't seem so aberrant; they're teenagers playing with boundaries, forming identities, making friends.

Now, here is the point I really wanted to make in this post. On my way home from the Daisy Chain centre I was waiting at the bus stop alone. Suddenly, three youths appeared out of nowhere and came into the bus shelter. I knew something was wrong when they sat RIGHT next to me. This kind of experience has conditioned a fight/flight response in me so I was on guard. The ringleader proceeded to talk to me despite seeing that I had earphones in and was looking in the opposite direction. In a stupid voice, he said hello and asked me where I was going and if I wanted to buy his "very genuine" pair of headphones. My approach was for minimal interaction, so I said what I had to and resumed looking away. However, he continued to talk to me and even asked if he was getting on my nerves, which he knew he was. I'd class this as an impairment in social interaction, wouldn't you? Although I doubt he was diagnosed with an ASC.

Tomas Szasz is famous for his anti-psychiatry approach, claiming that society labels people as 'mentally ill' or as having a 'condition' because they are different (AKA 'medicalising normality'). What was so different between the chavs and the people at Daisy Chain? The teenagers in the youth group were far nicer people, intelligent, interesting, funny, and yet it is they who have a 'condition'. Is anti-social behaviour not classed as a condition?

I'd like to talk to someone who can tell me why High Functioning Autism needs a diagnosis, and what is to be gained from this official clinical recognition. Of course I only saw these guys for 2 hours. Something leads me to think that every day is not the same...

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