Are we all a bit autistic?

I regularly talk to Executive Coaches, Business Psychologists, HR managers and others about neurodiversity and autism/Asperger (AS) traits in both the general population and the workplace. One of the questions I’m often asked is “Are we all a bit autistic?” This is often shortly followed by comments such as “That sounds like my boss/husband/father/ sibling/ neighbour/me (*delete those not applicable)”.

Right up until the 1980’s autism was understood as a rare quirk personified in characters such as Dustin Hoffman’s “Rainman”. Now it seems to be everywhere. How has that happened? And what is the difference between someone who is a bit autistic and someone who is “officially” autistic?

Autism: a brief history.

Autism was first described in 1943 by an American psychiatrist Leo Kanner who wrote about boys who could not communicate and appeared to live in their own world. For the next 30 years, autism was thought to be rare, existing in 1 out of every 5000 children, almost all of them boys who had little or no verbal communication.

About 35 years later, our understanding of autism was transformed by the research of Lorna Wing who translated the 1940’s work of an Austrian paediatrician called Hans Asperger, challenged our understanding of what autism was and introduced the idea of the autism spectrum.

The impact of Wing’s research has been monumental.   In the UK 1.1% are now considered to be autistic (Brugha, 2009). In 2014, CDC estimated a 1 in 68 incidence in the US (1.47%). It is still identified 4-5 times more frequently in males although current research is beginning to challenge our understanding of autism in females.

Autism is now understood as a form of neurodiversity, a largely genetically determined life-long difference in cognitive style and how the brain processes information.   The core features are problems with social communication/ interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities.

The Spectrum

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There are no neat boxes or clear lines that separate those with different kinds of autism or those who have a formal diagnosis from those who don’t.   Some people have much more autism than others.   Environment plays a key role in how “obvious” someone’s autism is.

Having “official” autism is no picnic. A formal diagnosis is given where a person’s day-to-day life is persistently, pervasively and significantly challenged.   People with a diagnosis vary enormously in what their autism looks like, how severely it affects them and the support they need. There is not a preference for routine and predictability but a genuine need; communication is a daily challenge; the social world can be utterly mystifying. Getting and keeping a job is rare – not because the job can’t be done but because workplaces are not autism friendly. People with moderate to severe autism are unlikely, without support, to live full independent lives.  There are many adults with autism, particularly those who might be understood as having Asperger’s Syndrome or “high functioning autism” who remain unidentified.

Being a bit autistic.

The spectrum concept leads to questions about autistic traits in the general population. Are there people with traits or characteristics similar in quality to autism but not enough to warrant a formal diagnosis? Ways of measuring autism traits in the general population have been developed. If you want to find out where you are on the spectrum have a look at the Autism Quotient (AQ) developed by the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge, UK.

http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html This is a screening instrument, it is not diagnostic!

Using the AQ, the ARC team have measured at least moderate levels of autism traits in 40% of men and 20% of women, higher in those working in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).  In 1944, Hans Asperger wrote:

“It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential”.

So it looks like many of us are a bit autistic and that can be a good thing, not a bad one. These traits can be seen as part of personality and perhaps even celebrated without any need for diagnosis.

So what?

In a knowledge-based economy with ever-increasing dependence on technology and more complex problems to solve, business needs minds with a dash or more of autism.  Over the last 20 years, autism has been the subject of an enormous amount of research.  While there is much still to learn, we know much more about how autistic minds work and what they need to thrive and succeed.

Businesses and coaches can learn much from the field of neurodiversity and autism so some of the brightest, quirkiest minds – those often known as “High IQ, Low EQ” or “Supergeeks” – can perform and succeed in their working lives.

And how wonderful it would be to create working environments that can be more inclusive of different kinds of minds.

Find out more:

Masterclass: Coaching Supergeeks, November 9th, London. Find out more here.

Further reading.

Baron-Cohen, S. , Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J. and Clubley, E. (2001) The Autistic Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians.

Brugha, T., McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Smith, J., Scott, F. J., Purdon, S., et al. (2009). Autism spectrum disorders in adults living in households throughout England: Report from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007; p. 9. Leeds, U.K.: The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care.

CDC 2014:  http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html

TED 2015: http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_silberman_the_forgotten_history_of_autism?language=en

Wing L, Potter D (2002). “The epidemiology of autistic spectrum disorders: is the prevalence rising?”. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev 8 (3): 151–161

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About the Top Stream blog.

This blog is written and curated on behalf of Top Stream by Sally Moore, Chartered Psychologist. The idea is to inform, promote discussion, and make the science of neurodiversity available and accessible to new audiences. Some funny stuff may creep in – when different brains connect, there is a serious side but it creates some comedy too. There will be contributions from guest writers, interesting interviews, research updates and first hand stories of people’s real life experiences. If you would like to be included or have a story to tell, please get in touch!

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