This is an important day in the calendar for autistic people. If only ordinary people (or neurotypicals as people with autism like to call non autistics) were more aware of autism and understood more about the condition, the problems we encounter on a daily basis would be greatly alleviated. Awareness and understanding are the key factors.
As around 1% of people are now thought to be autistic, everyone must know someone who is autistic, but the general public still appears to be ignorant of how autism presents itself in individuals. It can simply be a question of understanding the different way we think and view the world, which in fact is perfectly logical. I actually think it is neurotypical people who cause the confusion!
The high profile case of Gary McKinnon brought autism to the public’s attention recently. He has Asperger’s syndrome, the high functioning form of autism, and was threatened with extradition to the US for hacking into military and NASA computers. Thankfully the case has now been dropped, but only after 10 years of battling. You would think that having the ability to work out how to get past the tight security involved would be a skill to be admired, but rather than offer him a job as head of computer security, the Pentagon wanted to throw him in jail. This is a prime example of how autistic people are being persecuted by society instead of their skills being embraced and put to good use.
Autism should be viewed as a difference rather than a disability. I have always worked on my strengths rather than concentrate on my weaknesses. I tend to be very logical and analytical in my way of thinking and this has led to me studying physics at university. I’m currently on my work placement year at a science park in Cambridge where I analyse data and write computer programmes to display the data in different ways. This suits my way of thinking perfectly and I get on very well with all my work colleagues – I expect most of them don’t even know I’m autistic. However, put me in an environment where you need good social skills and you have to talk about trivia and topics you can’t back up with facts and figures, and of course I’m going to appear to be different!
Last year, for Autism Awareness Day, I was interviewed by New Scientist and they published an article entitled ‘Going bananas, Laughing your head off, English is a minefield if you have autism, says the student aiming to decode it.’ It highlighted how ridiculous the English language can be if viewed literally and explained why autistic people can be confused by every day expressions. My book ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs – An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions,’ has hopefully helped autistic people understand such expressions, but also it should provide an insight into how our brains process information and help neurotypicals understand how we think and view the world.
This year, for Autism Awareness Day, I will be giving a talk at Waterstones in Cambridge entitled ‘Making the Most of Autism – Strategies for Success.’ The talk will be introduced by Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; one of the world’s leading figures in the field of autism. He has written extensively about how autism should be viewed as a difference rather than a disability and concludes that in the right environment eg in the world of maths, computing, cataloguing, music, linguistics, craft, engineering or science, an autistic’s eye for detail can lead to outstanding success.
I will talk about how I have used my strengths to overcome and even outweigh some of my weaknesses, and how autistic people can make a valuable contribution to society because of their differences and unique way of thinking.
The talk will be followed by questions and answers and a book signing session. This will be an interesting event for anyone who is involved with autism or who wants to learn about autism – straight from the horse’s mouth!
For further information, contact Waterstones, Cambridge 01223 351688
Michael Barton is the author of ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs, An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions’ published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.