The discussion at the Guardian on curing autism that I blogged yesterday threw up the old chestnut that we have a severe form of autism where children are non-verbal, prone to self injury and violent tantrums and not even toilet trained. On the other hand we have a mild form, known as Asperger Syndrome, where quirky individuals struggle with social skills but are basically OK. Unlike the severely autistic kids, they don’t need a cure. But because they don’t need it they want to deny it to the kids who do need it.
This argument assumes that we have this clearcut break between the two forms of autism. It also asumes a worse case scenario for all those with severe autism and that life is a peach for the mildly affected asperger types. Reality is, of course, somewhat different. For a start autism is a spectrum disorder. It exists on a continuum with no clear cut dividing lines. Secondly, it is dimensional rather than categorical. People of a certain age [over 50s like myself] will remember the old stereograms with a simple bass/treble control. It was either/or. Then we got music centres with graphic equalizers where you could independently manipulate half a dozen individual variables. This serves as an analogy for autism. Once upon a time we thought it was either/or. Now we know it is a lot more complicated than that.
I get to see this all the time. I teach in one of the five designated special schools in my county. Our special schools are for childen who used to be described as retarded but are now described as having severe and/or complex learning difficulties. Many of them are also autistic. Since September 2004 I have had 43 children in my class. Out of 43 pupils 18 are autistic. My county has a very parsimonious record for funding out of county residential placements; 10 children at the last count. So it is safe to assume that my class records account for most, if not all, of the severely autistic 11 and 12 year olds with learning difficulties in my school’s catchment area.
So what do these guys look like? I did a quick survey, dividing them up into autistic [ASD] and non-autistic [NT]. then I counted up 5 categories of behaviour.
- self injury
Some children feature in more than one category. Those in ’5. none’ still have severe cognitive impairments.
Three things strike me from this highly anecdotal ‘research’ of mine.
- The behavioural markers that come up so often in popular debate; toileting, speech, tantrums and self injury; are not more prevalent in autistic children than they are in other children with cognitive impairments. [And, curiously, these popular criteria for autism are not the same as the official criteria of DSM-IV and ICD-10.]
- A significant minority of kids with ASD and almost half of the kids without autism had no severe problems in the four areas of toileting, speech, behaviour and self injury.
- Something that is not obvious from the chart, but some of the most challenging pupils in behavioural terms were also amongst the least impaired in other areas.
OK. This was a small sample and lacked a control group. If I had done this 5 years ago there would have been more self injury amongst the autistics and less with good languge skills. But I stand by my belief that the negative outcomes that are so vigorously promoted as an inevitable adjunct of autism are just as likely to be related to level of cognitive functioning. Even then, they are are not typical of either autism or of severe mental retardation. There are shades of grey on the autistic spectrum.