This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Six: The Autism Issue which you can download here.
Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in August 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.
When you hear the word “autism”, what do you immediately think of? A child playing on their own in the corner, lining up trains? A train spotter, maybe? What about that computer geek, or Rain Man memorising 6 packs of cards? Autism is generally perceived as being negative, but it need not be. Think of how the world of Physics was changed by Einstein and Newton, both of whom exhibited autistic traits.
As a child, I was definitely object-focused, rather than people-focused. This meant that I could memorise a lot of information, was very good with computers and would spend hours building huge Lego models. I had no time for ‘pretend play’ because these other things were so much more interesting to me. What was the point in hosting a pretend tea party when I could learn something new about dinosaurs?
What was the point in hosting a pretend tea party when I could learn something new about dinosaurs?
It’s almost impossible to find an autistic person without a special interest. We develop these extreme fascinations with a particular subject or topic and learn everything we can about them. Now, if these passions are directed into the real world, we can, and do, become world experts in our particular field – for example Alan Turing designing and inventing the modern computer. If it weren’t for his attention to detail, intense focus and determination, our world certainly wouldn’t be where it is today.
The problems I encountered at school were mainly due to my different way of thinking not being understood by my teachers – I had to do everything their way. At university, however, being different becomes a powerful advantage. Original thought is encouraged; someone who thinks outside the box is highly valued.
At university, however, being different becomes a powerful advantage. Original thought is encouraged; someone who thinks outside the box is highly valued.
Unfortunately, society has not yet learnt to embrace autistic people’s strengths. Take the Gary McKinnon case. He hacked into 97 NASA and Pentagon computers looking for information on UFOs. The US Government wanted to throw him in jail, but it seems obvious to me that they should have taken advantage of his fantastic computer skills and asked him to work for them as head of security!
Another problem I had at school was not being able to mix with my peers, which can result in bullying. The solution my parents came up with was, at age eight, to enrol me in Judo classes. Not only did this totally prevent bullying, it gave me a lot of self confidence. Judo has been a passion of mine ever since – I founded the judo club at university, became president of it in my final year, and was awarded club colours for my outstanding contribution and dedication.
The University of Surrey has an induction programme for autistic students. It runs for a few days prior to freshers week, and enables us to familiarise ourselves with our new surroundings. It certainly worked for me, and my time at University has been the best years of my life (so far). I was able to study a subject I’m good at and enjoy, and was able to socialise via the clubs I joined – Rock Climbing, Tennis, Table Tennis and Music.
Autistic people like routine, repetition and having a schedule to follow. While this may appear tedious or restrictive, it provides valuable discipline when it comes to learning a musical instrument. Religiously practicing every day for 15 years has resulted in me becoming a proficient musician, with the ability to play a wide variety of instruments including piano, bass guitar, drums and percussion (and the spoons). I’ve sometimes been the most popular person in a pub as a result of an impromptu spoons performance with the band!
Autism isn’t a disorder (in my case) – it’s just a difference.
To conclude – despite the differences that autistic people have, there are some real strengths that should be put to good use. Autism isn’t a disorder (in my case) – it’s just a difference. These differences that autistic people display can lead them to do exceptionally well in their chosen field and, as a result, be very valuable members of our society.
As the musician Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, there can be no progress”.
About the Author
Michael Barton is a 22 year old Physics graduate with high functioning autism. He’s the author of the popular “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” book, and has recently launched his latest book “A Different Kettle of Fish”. He is an accomplished musician, ex-president of the University of Surrey Judo club and a keen rock climber. He also gives talks on the positive aspects of autism and is currently planning a UK tour for September/October 2014.
Your can find out more at www.michaelbarton.org.uk
Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBarton22
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Issue Seven: The New Future Issue (Annual Special Edition)
Issue Six: The Autism Issue
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Issue One: Downwardly Mobile? Will the next generation find it harder to reach the next level?