The Myth of Autism Sami Timimi, Neil Gardner and Brian McCabe 2011 Palgrave Macmillan

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I’m guessing this book will get read a lot. Certain texts like
The Bible, The Quran, Mein Kampf, The Prince, Das Kapital get read by the faithful, the curious and those of us who’d consider it shameful to criticise ideas, and the books supporting them without reading them first.

It was with a bit of all these motivations that I consumed ‘The Myth of Autism’ in one sitting!

The association with those texts is a bit overdone, but the authors are aware that this is a book that challenges the autism ‘industry’ (their term not mine) and as such will provoke extreme reactions from those of us who ‘believe’ (my word not theirs) in autism. This is not just another book that analyses current research into, and understanding of autism, it seeks to explode it. The authors question ‘whether today’s definition of autism reflects a disorder at all, let alone a genetic, neurobiological one’.

The authors take apart the concept of autism and come to the conclusion that in what they call the ‘natural world’, it doesn’t exist. For them it is a construct born out of a socio-political need for something like autism.

The authors are pretty scathing about what they call the ‘failed science’ of autism. They shake some of the pillars that our current understanding of autism is built on. One such pillar is Lorna Wing and Judith Gould’s research in 1979 (which sought to test the validity of autism being associated with gaps in three abilities – speech, language and communication; flexible thinking; and social understanding/motivation). On this the authors write:

‘It was no clearer than it had been in previous papers whether the three types of behaviours belonged together... or how accurately they could be used to differentiate ‘autistic’ children from others’ [Page 60].

Michael Rutter and Simon Baron-Cohen get pretty much the same going over.

The author’s biggest problem with the autism ‘label’ is just that – that as a label it stigmatises individuals. The ‘life-long incurable disability’ label once applied has the potential to harm and actually prevent access to the right kind of support and understanding.
Well I guess I’d agree with that – up to a point. How disastrous you think labelling is I guess depends on whether you think there is a more positive understanding/awareness of autism that can be achieved and achieved widely. Some of the biggest advocates for the label I have come across are individuals with the diagnosis!

I have to say some of the language used by the authors to describe people with autism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Here they question the validity of a ‘spectrum’ of autism:‘...we have the nonsense of those who are speechless residents of special schools having the same label as gifted and talented mainstream school children (who may be struggling to make friends)’.[Page 293]
Hmmm. Disappointing.

So what’s to like? It’s never been done before – and someone needed to say this stuff. It will enrage some, amuse others. Pausing and reflecting are not bad things to do whatever our employment in the autism industry. The author’s insistence that we see and respond to every human being with fresh eyes is right on the money.

The downsides? For a 2011 publication, a lot of the research and literature quoted is a bit old. The authors quote a National Autistic Society statement from 2003 on the ‘current’ efficacy of treatments. There are also some whacking generalisations that it’s hard to excuse – for instance the assertion that broad spectrum traits (such as attention to detail) are common in Asian/Far Eastern cultures [and are valued].

For me the thing that irritates is the failure of the book to put forward much in the way of an alternative model for understanding (and responding to) the kind of differences we see in individuals formally known as people with autism. To be fair though the book doesn’t set out to do this.

I find at the end of the book I’m still of the opinion that autism exists, just like left-handedness exists. It’s always been part of the natural way of things. Now, we have believed a lot, and done a lot of unhelpful, and even cruel things to all manner of people, who in one way or other differ from the predominant neuro-type. But does that make the definition (e.g., the label autism) wrong,
or the actions of the persecutors wrong?

I guess I’m not ready to shrug off my Emperors’ Clothes just yet. I still think that there exists a constellation of characteristics - a different set of senses, perceptions, abilities and thinking systems that can be part of a person, within a community of people. A community called autism.

Chris Barson

(A version of this review appeared in Learning Disability Today)

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