By MAS Team | 25 February 2020
Neurological conditions such as autism can be devastating – for the affected families, obviously, but also for society at large, writes David Cohen.
Thanks to a small tidal wave of media coverage over the past decade, we know how it starts. A young child in the best of physical health, for example, appears to be getting by almost fine – sure, their language development might seem a touch slow, some of their behaviours a little odd – until, finally, these and other facts swarm together under a diagnostic explanation.
Autism is a spectrum of disorders affecting behaviour, sensory perception and communication. Some of the estimated one in 59 individuals affected by it will be cognitively impaired. But even those who are "high functioning" will require their own forms of lifelong support.
The same is true to a greater or lesser degree of people with other "invisible" conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette Syndrome.
In the case of autism, the immediate challenges are formidable enough, and here I speak from experience as a father of a boy who was diagnosed as severely autistic in the early 2000s. There's early schooling to consider, of course, along with questions of how the domestic environment will need to be best arranged in the years ahead.
Less well appreciated is how it ends.
Once upon a time and not so long ago, the outlook here was pretty bleak.
About half of potentially employable autistic people are permanently unemployed, according to the American advocacy and research group Autism Speaks, with poor educational opportunities often leading to generally low workplace participation.
Neurodiversity, a relatively new, slightly clunky-sounding descriptor with an entirely sweet meaning, is one attempt to apply some social balm to that last concern.
The term reflects a growing change in understanding. It shifts the emphasis away from the affected individual to society at large, especially in the areas of higher education and careers.
In a culture that fizzes with downright unpleasant adjectives for people with atypical or decidedly offbeat psychological traits, it challenges the rest of us to think more positively of these conditions as part of the great tapestry of the human experience.
Changes in some quarters have been swift. The magazine Forbes reported this year that large corporations such as SAP, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Ford, IBM, and others have recognised the competitive advantage of neurodiversity and begun to utilise the special gifts and talents of individuals with autism and other neurological differences to improve the workplace.
True, those gifts and talents usually come with their own particular set of challenges. But you could say the same of almost any group. And the potential benefits are impressive.
Why else, would the Israeli army, which even its harshest critics would hardly describe as ineffective, go out of its way to specifically recruit autistics to serve in a dedicated branch known as Unit 9900, where their heightened perceptual skills are put to military use in areas such as the intricate reading of maps in airport security?
Here are some possible reasons. Those on the autistic spectrum tend to have highly specific skills, such as attention to detail, which can come in very handy in some fields. They tend to be highly committed employees if the role is right for them, and who doesn't want that?
They also tend to be straight talking, which might rule them out in fields where mendacity is more or less expected but would recommend them in others – not just the military, but computational areas such as IT and accounting – where honesty is a corporate asset.
I first heard about the concept from one of the world's most famous autistic women, Dr Temple Grandin, who also happens to be one of the world's leading scholars on animal behaviour.
Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has published hundreds of papers on autism and animal science.
Her ideas on animal slaughter have also been widely adopted. If you've had a McDonalds burger recently, the chances are good that the animal was slaughtered according to more human standards as a result of modifications she helped usher in.
For example, in one of her books, Animals in Translation, she made medical headlines by speculating that autism can be a tool for helping to decode how animals think and feel. Autistic people's frontal lobes, she writes, almost never work as well as other people's do. Instead, according to Grandin, the autist generally makes do with the part of the brain that animals rely on.
In this, and much else, she is celebrated. Ironically, she told me, she might never have been celebrated at all had she not come of age when her condition was less well understood, thus making it possible for gifted autistic people to land a good job (or indeed any job at all) thanks to the fact that university admissions officers and recruiters were less aware of it.
"And here I am," she said warmly, "one of America's leading people when it comes to the medication of autism. What does that tell you?"
What it probably tells us, or at any rate underscores, is that a little more enthusiasm for differences and a little less concern for similarities can sometimes pay rich social dividends.
Indeed, if neurodiversity were sufficiently celebrated and practised, those intial diagnoses might be a lot less devestating for all concerned.
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