By John Thornhill
Greta Thunberg describes it as her “superpower”. Unfortunately, not everyone views autism that way. For the teenage Swedish activist, having Asperger’s syndrome — a form of autism — has helped power her environmental campaigning. “It makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box,” she told the BBC.
But more commonly, people diagnosed on the autism spectrum — about one in 100 of the population — are stigmatised and excluded. In the UK, only 16 per cent of autistic adults were in full-time paid employment in 2016, according to the National Autistic Society. Other neurodiverse people, including those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette syndrome, can face difficulties and discrimination in the workplace.
But attitudes are changing as employers come to see neurodiverse people as a human asset that society should treasure, not as a liability to be marginalised. Neurodiversity, which is both a neurological concept and a social movement, is emerging as the “final frontier” in the diversity debate.
The case for reconceptualising our understanding of autism and celebrating neurodiversity is powerfully made in a new book by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge university. Using the 2018 UK Brain Types Study of 600,000 people, Professor Baron-Cohen identified five brain types along a spectrum from empathising to systemising.
He suggests that there is an overlap between hyper-systemisers, as he calls them, who tend to be good at pattern recognition and relentless experimentation, and autistic people. It is this systemising mechanism, a kind of if-and-then algorithm, that is one of the main engines of human ingenuity.
For more than 20 years, Prof Baron-Cohen has worked with autistic people in Cambridge and says such children often struggle at school, where they are not suited to changing subjects every 30 minutes when the bell rings. They then lack the necessary academic qualifications or social skills to shine at an interview and often fail to land a job. Two-thirds of those who come to his centre report feeling suicidal.
In Prof Baron-Cohen’s view, the most effective means to respond to this “human tragedy” is to help autistic people find meaningful employment. “The concept of neurodiversity is revolutionary,” he says. “Autistic people have strengths, they have real talents. They do not just have disabilities.”
Originally Posted On Financial Times