What do cars bearing blue oval badges, ranging from the formerly locally produced Falcon, to the imported Focus and the Mazda-built Escape, the singer of the song "Cars", a band member of alternative rock band, "Hole", a lead actor in "Ghostbusters" and "Spies Like Us" and the actress who played Ophelia in the Mel Gibson version of "Hamlet" have in common? Not to mention a train-loving former Australian Deputy Prime Minister to John Howard. Give up? All had autism or autistic traits.
When one thinks of autism, one tends to think of the Leo Kanner depiction of autism as the small child who cannot speak, has violent meltdowns, wears nappies as they can't be toilet-trained and smears faeces all over the wall.
In recent years, we have heard the expression "autism epidemic" which has been blamed on the MMR vaccine, intestinal parasites and curses from Satan himself. We have seen parents who attract sympathy and are willing to believe quackery that has seen them insert bleach enemas in their children's rectums, believing they are removing parasites, when what they're really doing is burning the lining of their children's large bowel.
Those who tend to follow more "mainstream" therapies, aim to force their kids to attend 40 hours a week of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) to attempt to make the child appear indistinguishable from their neuro-typical peers.
The question needs to be asked, are we REALLY facing an autism epidemic? Well, no. Why? Well, one of the most misleading comments I've heard was from a woman who said, "When cigarettes were safe." If we go back through history, we can see that the first Europeans who arrived in New South Wales, arrived in chains with the clothes on their backs and little else. I remember reading, nearly 33 years ago (history is a special interest of mine) that if you had waited until 1820 to be transported (well, realistically, in 1787 (when the First Fleet set off for New South Wales) being sent to New South Wales was like being sent to Neptune, and you couldn't think, "Hmm, living conditions are so terrible over here, but if I wait 33 years, well, you might have been dead, you'll see this) you would have done far better for yourself, as you would have been provided with some sets of clothes and a working smock, prior to your departure from England, that as well as a food supply, convicts were given tobacco if they wanted it. Life expectancy was much shorter back then and people who were sick when they died had not been attended to by doctors with six year medical degrees and hospital internships, people just died, and they didn't know why. Also, people tended to have large families because, a) they didn't use contraception, and b) not all children survived into adulthood, as you couldn't take your baby to the doctor or the clinic to have their triple antigen injections and polio syrup like you can today, and a bacterial infection, such as an ear infection, was not treatable with a course of antibiotics as it is today. Nowadays, we know that smoking is an increased risk factor for cancer, and we know that cancer may be diagnosed early and surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be used to kill cancer cells. So, it is not some new fangle aspect of society that causes autism, but the broadening of the diagnostic criteria AND increased awareness and diagnosis that is responsible for increased cases of autism.
Let us not forget that a famous person who has been latterly diagnosed as being autistic was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, in that he knew about Otto Hahn's discovery and wrote to President Roosevelt warning him of the danger to the world if this was harnessed into a bomb and the Nazis produced it. Despite this, his reaction when he heard that a uranium fission bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima was one of sadness and grief. He also stated in 1947 that he did not believe that Roosevelt would have allowed the use of the bomb. (Whether or not he would have is a matter of conjecture, as while Roosevelt was held up as an heroic President, Jesse Owens stated that in relation to Hitler's refusal to shake hands with him, that despite Hitler's racism, he was more pleasant towards him than Roosevelt, who snubbed him. And William Lyon Mackenzie-King even expressed relief that the bomb wasn't used on a European country.) And that person, Albert Einstein, was not in the high achiever's class at school, in fact, his teachers regarded him as stupid. He was clever with mathematics, but did not do well in German or other subjects.
Autistic people may be great in some areas (we are NOT all maths genii, some of us are better at history (I can remember dates) but struggle in some areas and the approach to teaching autistic kids has to change. I remember reading a story called "The Poacher's Son," by Rachel Anderson (a book that I actually found disturbing with its depictions of the cruelty of English reform schools at the turn of the twentieth century) whereby the main character and narrator, Arthur, struggles with learning at school, but he knows his way around the bush, and his teacher, Mr Pooley, says, "You like oranges. Okay, let's do a problem with oranges." So, it is possible, for an autistic kid, who struggles to incorporate their special interest into subjects where they struggle. For example, if a kid likes cars, you can find out what sort and say, "Okay, Mary wants to buy a Toyota RAV4. She has saved $14,000 but still needs $12,000 to buy it. The bank agrees to lend her $12,000 at an interest rate of 4.5% per annum over five years. Calculate the total interest that Mary will pay over the five year period." Or, "Robert wants to go on a holiday to Japan. He has $3000 to convert to Yen, the exchange rate for the Yen is 84.95 Yen to one dollar. When he returns from Japan, he has 10,000 Yen to convert to Australian dollars. How much does he receive when he converts it?" Or, yet another example, I remember when I was in Year Four, we had to write a story and we had to include a dragon, a bathtub and a cellar. I would have had it that it was a Chinese boy who was born in the Year of the Dragon and his adventures in a bathtub. I remember once, having to write a story on Nymphs and Gnomes, and I had it that a group of boys were playing street cricket and there was a Chinese lady living in the street and the ball went into her yard. He climbed the fence but got a splinter and the Chinese lady, who was shunned by the street, was actually quite a kind lady and took him around the back and removed the splinter, but while he was there, he was taken on a spiritual journey to China, while he could smell jasmine, that took him to a silkworm nursery and all the while, he was focussed on a gnome in the backyard. The lady was so gentle he didn't notice that she'd removed the splinter, cleaned the wound and put a dressing on it.
Just like there have been the Freedom Rides, starting with Rosa Parkes, who refused to give up her bus seat for a white man, we have seen equality movements in this country. We have seen a referendum to count the First Nations Peoples in the census. We have seen piecemeal abolition of the White Australia Policy (okay, there were some exemptions to the dictation test) and Harold Holt exempting the Japanese brides of ex-BCOF Servicemen, yet it was Labor that OFFICIALLY abolished race as a criteria for immigration. During the 1970s, we saw LGBTIQA rights fought for and won. It was removed from the DSM in 1973 as a mental illness, then we had the first Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978. Now, we have the autistic civil rights movement. The fight for autistic people to be accepted as autistic people. Just like aversion therapy, electric shock therapy, forcing a person to lie in their own vomit and faeces have been outlawed, and now Gay Conversion Therapy is outlawed in some states, so too, the rights of autistic people not to be subjected to bleach enemas and not to be subjected to ABA and PBS is being fought for! The right of autistic people to have a voice (and a voice doesn't mean a neuro-typical politician) in this country. Nothing about us without us. The right of autistic people to not be treated as guinea pigs. The right of autistic people to be. That doesn't mean an autistic person can commit murder and be pardoned, by all means, they have to be taught to abide by the laws, but in the right way!
Autistic people are not going anywhere, and also, good mental health is the right of a human being, along with the right of autistic people to access mental health services from specialists they understand and who understand autism, not those applied on a neuro-typical basis. Above all else, Hanson's speech regarding autistic kids needs to be viewed as paternalistic and say that autistic people have the right to decide whether they want to be in a special classroom (and one that meets their needs) or mainstream, with or without support.
After all, how many more Henry Fords, Dan Ackroyds, Daryl Hannahs and others may we get with the right support?