I have a theory that autism is being diagnosed in such large numbers these days because society has changed and made being slightly different less acceptable. I believe autism has always been with us but once there was a place for people who were “loners” or “rigid thinkers” and nowadays we ask everyone to confirm to a template of being vastly social, flexible, eloquent, highly focused, organised and motivated. Not everyone is like that.
My Grandad was a quiet man. He was very good with his hands, a practical man; my Nan always had him doing some bit of DIY or the other around the house. He made me a wooden scooter for one birthday, a doll’s house for another. When he wasn’t redecorating the living room, he would be in his workshop, pottering about in quiet contentment. At family gatherings, he would slope off to his workshop and stay there for hours. It was Grandad, it was his way. He was a garage mechanic and he stayed in that one job at least all of my life up to and including my teens, until he caught cancer and died just before retirement.
My grandparents didn’t have much money so they didn’t go out to socialise. Whereas my Nan was sociable, opinionated and chatty, Grandad was friendly but kept himself to himself. He spoke to his workmates and he spoke to his family, he worked and came home for his dinner, he spent his leisure time fishing or in his workshop. Grandad was an old-fashioned, stoic Englishman. There was a place for him in society; a job for him, a small social circle, a wife to support him, a family to love him. Life had its demands but he could meet them and he belonged. Most importantly, it was perfectly normal for him to be that way.
For my son, life is very different. Right from the start of their educational life, children are streamed according to ability, tested, given homework from an early age regardless of their developmental maturity or ability to handle extra work after school. Learning is no longer individual and by rote, structured and easy to follow. Children are expected to work in groups and speak up with ideas. Learning is fluid, there are lots of things to take in at once. Classrooms are filled with displays and visual noise. Children are encouraged to work and play with different groups of children. There are residential trips away from home. These are all immense strains on a child who does not process information typically. Some children cannot cope with the sensory over-stimulation and become aggressive or disruptive due to an inability to focus or feeling overwhelmed.
The National Autistic Society says that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment and only 32% are in some kind of paid work
In the past there were jobs that allowed people of lower educational or mental ability to do menial but easy tasks. There were mining jobs or mechanic jobs or builders’ mates, or postroom jobs, delivery boys on bicycles, any number of small but important jobs that would give someone a purpose in society and some small income. Learning was on-the-job as apprentices, careers could be built from the bottom and over time and there was stability. Above all, there was stability and predictability.
Nowadays even the most basic entry jobs are desperately fought for and the qualifications required seem to be higher and higher by the year. A person can expect to change jobs frequently due to redundancies and mergers, indeed to change careers; flexibility is required. Stability and predictability are a thing of the past. Job seekers have to be able to write exemplary cover letters, complete lengthy and complicated online application processes, perform at interview, all the while knowing that they are competing against possibly hundreds of candidates. There are fewer and fewer manual jobs, fewer and fewer apprenticeships. Office jobs require computer skills and multi-tasking, offices are often open plan and noisy, telephone skills are required. Duties change, jobs change, staff turnover can be frequent. Many positions are in customer service call centres. Often people are held accountable for illnesses and time off. There is immense pressure.
The National Autistic Society says that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment (NAS stats) and only 32% are in some kind of paid work. Only 10% of autistic adults receive employment support but 53% say they want it.
Our leisure time is online, social media is king. We live in an era of 24 hour rolling news, information at the click of a button, hundreds of television channels, always-on devices, obscene ranges of choice in supermarkets and stores, decisions to be made constantly and frequently. Our minds are racing, our attention is divided and life never stops. Advertisements tell us that we should be fit, abs rippling, bodies sculpted. We should be vacationing in exotic destinations, we should be out partying with our vast social circle. We should be deeply in love. We are nothing if we are not seen to be successful.
Is autism new or did we only start noticing the people who can’t keep up?
And my son is going to have to go out into this world and make friends, find a job and cope with an online world. I ask you – is it any wonder that autism is being diagnosed in ever increasing rates? Is autism new or did we only start noticing the people who can’t keep up? Did vaccinations or pollutants create autism or did the modern age reveal it? Do we need a cure for people who don’t fit in or do we need to find a way to allow people to be different and still have a role in modern society?
The world changed and now he has a label
Of course there are severely autistic people, low functioning, who would have been institutionalised in the past. Just because we didn’t know about autism doesn’t mean it never existed. However, I believe that we are only noticing it and diagnosing it in such rates now, even in adults, because what we are expected to be to function in society has changed. There is nothing that different about my son, nothing that would have required special measures fifty years ago. The world changed and now he has a label. I am grateful for the support he gets, I am grateful that his life is rich and varied and he has opportunities but I sometimes wonder if he would have been happier in a less demanding world.
This may be controversial, I would love to hear your thoughts.