Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - 0 comments

Autism : 6. Helping the Handicapped

by : Uta Frith

SELF-ABSORPTION displayed by this
autistic girl is a common feature
of the disorder. In the motion
picture Rain Man, self-absorption
was the key trait of the central
character, an autistic adult
portrayed by actor Dustin Hoffman.
The old image of the child in the glass shell is misleading in more ways than one. It is incorrect to think that  inside the glass shell is a normal individual waiting to emerge, nor is it true that autism is a disorder of  childhood only. The motion picture Rain Man came at the right time to suggest a new image to a receptive public. Here we see Raymond, a middle-aged man who is unworldly, egocentric in the extreme and all too amenable to manipulation by others. He is incapable of understanding his brother’s double-dealing pursuits, transparently obvious though they are to the cinema audience. Through various experiences it becomes possible for the brother to learn from Raymond and to forge an emotional bond with him. This is not a farfetched story. We can learn a great deal about ourselves through the phenomenon of autism.

Yet the illness should not be romanticized. We must see autism as a devastating handicap without a cure. The autistic child has a mind that is unlikely to develop self-consciousness. But we can now begin to identify the particular types of social behavior and emotional responsiveness of which autistic individuals are capable. Autistic people can learn to express their needs and to anticipate the behavior of others when it is regulated by external, observable factors rather than by mental states. They can form emotional attachments to others. They often strive to please and earnestly wish to be instructed in the rules of person-toperson contact. There is no doubt that within the stark limitations a degree of satisfying sociability can be achieved.

Autistic aloneness does not have to mean loneliness. The chilling aloofness experienced by many parents is not a permanent feature of their growing autistic child. In fact, it often gives way to a preference for company. Just as it is possible to engineer the environment toward a blind person’s needs or toward people with other special needs, so the environment can be adapted to an autistic person’s needs.

On the other hand, one must be realistic about the degree of adaptation that can be made by the limited person. We can hope for some measure of compensation and a modest ability to cope with adversity. We cannot expect autistic individuals to grow out of the unreflecting mind they did not choose to be born with. Autistic people in turn can look for us to be more sympathetic to their plight as we better understand how their minds are different from ours.


UTA FRITH is a senior scientist in the Cognitive Development Unit of the Medical Research Council in London. Born in Germany, she took a degree in psychology in 1964 at the University of the Saarland in Saarbr├╝cken, where she also studied the history of art. Four years later she obtained her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of London. Besides autism, her interests include reading development and dyslexia. She has edited a book in the field of reading development, Cognitive Processes in Spelling, and is the author of  Autism: Explaining the Enigma.


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