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On The Spectrum Simon Baron Cohen


Unknown Speaker 0:08

What led me to work in the field of autism originally was I was a teacher for children with autism in a small unit. And it was a really fantastic opportunity to get to know, six children in a lot of detail. Well, after that experience, I decided to get into research trying to understand autism a bit better. The kind of research that I've been involved in, has been looking at the causes of autism, so called basic science, but also at what helps so called Applied Science. So we know that autism runs in families. So that gives us a clue that there are going to be genes involved in the cause. And we also know that when you have twins, where one has autism, the chance of the other one also having it is high, but it's not 100%. So that means that there are some non genetic factors, external or environmental factors. And we don't really know what those are yet. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability, which means it's affecting the way the brain develops. And that it starts in early development. And it affects social development, the ability to form social relationships, communication, but it's got this other unusual feature, which is that their child or adult gets very focused on particular topics, likes to go into things in much greater depth than the average person. And we talk about autism and Asperger's syndrome. And that can be a helpful distinction, because in autism, the person may have additional learning difficulties, and language delay. And Asperger's syndrome. person doesn't have any language delay, so they were talking on time. And their IQ may be anywhere on the on the scale. So they may have learning difficulties, but equally, they may have average intelligence or even above average intelligence, they still share this same set of features, social difficulties, communication, and really wanting to go into particular topics. Some would say obsessively. Some people might wonder what what are the first signs that will alert either a parent or a professional, that this person might have autism. And if it's if we're talking about a young child, it may be that the child's not looking at faces, not looking at people, and not wanting to participate in social groups. For example, if we're talking about an adult, it may also be that they're very isolated. They may be avoiding looking at faces, or they may have learned that that's the kind of thing you're meant to do. But nevertheless, still have difficulties in having conversations and chatting. The other thing about autism, and we've talked about an autism spectrum, because there's a lot of variation in there is that people often find it difficult to adjust to change, especially unexpected change. So whether we're talking about a child or an adult, if something unexpected happens, they may get very stressed, they may want to go back to doing things the way that they've always done them. So in a very habit based way, they may resist trying new things. So these are all if you like red flags, or signs that might alert another person that this may be autism. And number three, what's needed is to go to the GP to get a referral or a proper assessment. A new way of thinking about autism is that the way people with autism see the world and process information might lend itself to scientific reality. And it doesn't mean that people with autism unnecessarily doing science exams at a higher level, or able to work professionally as scientists, it's more about how they think about the world, that many people with autism like things to be highly structured. They like things to be in quite neat categories, and then become fascinated by patterns. Even if it's a young child with autism who likes to line things up and brain neat patterns, and gets very upset if anyone disturbs that patterns. And that way of thinking about the world looking at at regularities or patterns, or rules in the world

Unknown Speaker 4:53

is actually the very similar sort of way that a scientist thinks that when a scientist is To understand nature, for example, they're trying to put things into categories or they're trying to understand what causes what. In children with autism, for example, we sometimes see that they become obsessed with running water in the taps. And they really want to see what happens when you turn on the taps, you run downstairs, and you see the water flowing out of the drain pipes and into the drain. And they're doing their little mini experiment, where they might become obsessed with light switches in the house. And they're turning light switches on and off in the house, and get very upset if anyone interrupts their activity. But again, they're trying to understand, in one case, the flow of water. In another case, the electrical systems in the house, we often see films where Autism is portrayed as the person has savant abilities, almost at a genius level, when you do find people with autism, who do have remarkable skills, but we have to be a bit careful that films like that don't misrepresent the whole spectrum of people with autism. It is true that some people with autism do have remarkable gifts in areas like music, or art, or mathematics. But there are lots of people with autism who don't show those remarkable talents. But nevertheless, there is something different about how they process information. And you could talk about it as superior functioning. But it may not come out as something as obvious as artistic talent or musical talent, it may just be that they notice things that other people miss. But they're very quick at spotting if something's changed. Or it may be unusual memory that they remember things that other people just wouldn't have paid attention to, like somebody's phone number, or exactly which day something happened many years ago. And it's the sign that they are processing information differently, that the brain is working differently, not better or worse, just differently. And that we have to take that into account when we're thinking about things like employment, or education. Now, what kind of environment what kind of information might suit this person best. There was the report from the National autistic society a few years ago suggesting that 90% of adults with autism are unemployed. And I don't know if that statistic is still true. And if that covered people with both classic autism and Asperger's Syndrome, but either way, it's a shocking statistic. Because we know a lot of people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome have skills that could make them employable. And we know that unemployment is bad for your mental health. One barrier to employment for people with autism might be at the selection stage. Because often, the way you get a job is to go through an interview. And interviews tend to rely on social skills and communication skills, which are precisely the areas that people with autism share their disability. So in a way, it's unfair to expect that all applicants for a job should have to go through a single type of interview selection process. And I've seen some employers who are very open minded and think, well, if the job that this person is applying for doesn't actually require excellent social or communication skills, but actually requires computer programming skills, let's make the interview not about conversation or questions on verbal communication. Let's give the person a task. Some employers use Lego, for example, to look at whether the applicant in the interview can solve a problem by putting together a new design in a novel way or just quickly, which doesn't involve assessing the person for that icontact or their ability to take turns in the conversation or how much emotion they're expressing, none of which may be relevant to the actual job. And that's where people with autism might have a fair chance that getting their job and, and showing their skills or even their talents, rather than being discriminated against the very area where they struggle. So, you know, I'm very keen to see employers looking for ways in which they can value the skills that people with autism have in the workplace. And once you start thinking about it, and there are lots it's actually quite easy. There are lots of ways to look at what people with autism could bring to an employer.

Unknown Speaker 9:57

As an example, people with autism have In like, routine and structure, and there might be aspects of a job that require a lot of repetition. Once you know the rules, whether it's a very basic level like filing, or whether it's at a higher level, like making a film wants to know the rules of which buttons to push, and what the sequence of actions are, people with autism could perhaps learn their sequences and learn those roles at a more accurate level, and be willing to stay on that task for longer periods, because they want to do it to the end in a very complete way. And in a very precise way, that those are skills that employers should be able to use. Some people with autism are going to struggle with the social aspects of employment, for example, all the chitchat in the office, or whether they're expected to go and socialize after work by going to the pub, those things might be very stressful for someone with autism. And if the employer realizes this person has a diagnosis, they're good at certain things, they may struggle with other things, they can simply make what's called reasonable adjustments in the workplace, so that it's actually easy for the person with autism, and nevertheless, still good for the company. And an example might be that someone with autism is doing their job really well. So they've managed to get the job.

Unknown Speaker 11:30

They're doing their job really well. And then something unexpected happened. And they have a so called meltdown. And they get very upset. And for the employer, they need to think, is this something that

Unknown Speaker 11:46

they can manage? Or is this something that is a disciplinary issue, because the person was shouting, but if they just see it as part of the disability, and they realize this person might need to support a key point is not grounds for losing the job, it just means those are the sorts of moments where the person needs extra support, then those moments pass and the person can stay in the job continue contributing to the workplace. And the employer and the employee have got a good understanding of what are the thing? What are the things that are going to make make the job go well? And where are the areas where the person needs extra support. Some people with autism might, might find it really hard if there's an unexpected change, for example, that their manager tells them one day that they have to move offices, or even just move desks, whether their role has changed. And it wasn't anticipated. It wasn't discussed. And they might find the transition, something that we might find very easy to make, they might find that really stressful and even traumatic. And if the employer knows that ahead of time, they might think, well, do we really need to meet this person when we're having a reorganization? Or is this going to cause unnecessary disruption and stress for this person. So it's all about taking into account that some people may need to be approached and managed in slightly different ways. There are some people who have a formal diagnosis. And in some ways, if the employer knows that ahead of time, then they can be taking that into account when they're thinking about how to best work with that person. But there are other people who don't have a diagnosis. But it arises during the process of work, that they realize that they're struggling socially. They're struggling to adjust to unexpected change. Maybe they're having difficulties with colleagues, and becomes a bit evident, that maybe they need a diagnosis. And we work in a clinic here in Cambridge, where adults are coming for a diagnosis for the first time in their lives. Ideally, something like autism or Asperger's Syndrome should be picked up in childhood, or the latest in teens. But there are people out there who've got right through their childhood and their teams without a diagnosis. But they do have an underlying Autism Spectrum condition. And it only manifests itself in adulthood, maybe at work. And in those situations, again, the person needs to go to their GP, maybe with the support of their employer so that they can be formally recognized as having a disability, because that gives them certain entitlements and the legislation that protects people with disabilities, one industry that seems to be very open to people with autism work. Is the IT industry. But it's not the only one. There are some companies that recognize that many of their talented programmers may either have a formal diagnosis of autism, or may have all of the same behaviors and traits, but just not have had a formal diagnosis. And the company doesn't mind, you know, they see that this is part and parcel, that they've got a lot of autistic traits. And they're not really being evaluated in terms of that they're being evaluated in terms of what they produce a new device, a new gadget, a new piece of computer code. And increasingly, it's really good that companies are coming out and talking about this. I've heard about a local company that makes chocolates, for example. And they're very keen to have people with autism working there. And I've met other people who work as gardeners, for example. And even as award winning, Chelsea Garden Show gardeners, but they have autism. So there are lots of different types of employers or contexts where people with autism could be making a good contribution. And often the employer wants someone with autism, because of the business case, they recognize that the person with autism might actually be a better employee, they're willing to stick at a task for longer periods, do that task at a more perfectionist level,

Unknown Speaker 16:26

and maybe not waste their time whilst they're at work. doing all the things that are not work related like chatting, we certainly need to increase awareness about autism for people in the general public. Because whereas some of us work in this field, and a much more familiar with the range of behaviors that people with autism might show. For other people out there, they might not know that they've met someone with autism, they might not have seen very many people with that diagnosis. So I think the media can help. really hoping that writers, filmmakers, people who are involved in public communication include characters include people with autism in their stories, they're not just showcasing the talented few, but actually showing the whole range of people with Autism and Related disabilities. I think we can have you know, more on television, more on radio, more in the newspapers and on the web. Just say that in some ways, people can, people in the general public can become more familiar with different types of behavior. every aspect of our society needs to make space for people with disabilities. So if someone with disabilities, like autism needs extra support in the workplace, then as a society, that's what we should be looking to provide. Public Places need to be autism friendly. And I'm very impressed that, for example, here in Cambridge, the local cinema has special days, where they encourage families who've got young children with autism, to come in and have autism friendly screenings. So that if the child is not the kind of child who will sit in the seat, and sit quietly for two hours watching a film that might instead be lying on the floor, or running around, or making noises, sometimes, that's fine. Because there are children like that that's part of our community. And people who don't mind can come to those screenings, even if they don't have autism. But people who do have a child with autism, will know that they're not being judged in that way. Because sometimes families can be made to feel, in some ways stigmatized. Once we accept that disability is part of our community. It means that whether we're talking about education or health services or employment or any other part of society, we need to make sure that people with disabilities can fit in just as easily as other people.

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