Making Sense of ASD

While researching notable autistic people for the presentation currently running in the ground floor atrium area in Augustine House as part of Autism Awareness Week (AAW), I noticed something of a common theme. Many of the celebrities I was finding on lists of famous figures with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) had been diagnosed not as children but as adults – whether they had been encouraged by their partners and families to seek the opinions of medical experts, or had read about symptoms that resonated with their own experiences and behaviours and gone on to self-diagnose, it seemed clear that for many of these people, the lack of awareness and understanding of autism during their childhood and adolescence had meant that only as recognition of autism developed during their lifetime had they come to realise that ASD is a fundamental part of their identity.

One such figure is the actor Sir Anthony Hopkins. Describing his childhood self in a 2017 interview as ‘unruly’ and a ‘poor learner’, Hopkins found school difficult academically and behaviourally and was left feeling angry and alone. Somewhat more at peace with himself now in his advanced years, Hopkins has said that he lives with a restlessness that leads him to both fixate on certain activities and compulsively multi-task, and that not having had a comprehensive sense of self prior to his  diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome (AS) resulted in ‘years of deep insecurity and curiosity’. However, though Hopkins has certainly struggled at points in his life, there is no question that he has achieved an incredible amount. In addition to an acting career that has seen him the recipient of a huge number of awards and garner universal acclaim, Hopkins is also an accomplished painter and composer. For those unfamiliar with this latter string to his bow, below is a performance of a waltz composed by Hopkins and performed by André Rieu and his orchestra.

 

 

A Different View

Hopkins considers his Asperger’s as something of a gift when it comes to acting:

“I definitely look at people differently. I like to deconstruct, to pull a character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the same as everyone else”.

Autistic people can offer alternative perspectives to those of their neurotypical friends, family members and colleagues. Naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, diagnosed with AS in his 40s, has spoken of the immense value of autistic people within society:

“Humanity has prospered because of people with autistic traits. Without them, we wouldn’t have put man on the Moon or be running software programs. If we wiped out all the autistic people on the planet, I don’t know how much longer the human race would last”.

Packham has made a documentary about his life with Asperger’s, Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, which is available to watch on Box of Broadcasts and well worth viewing. Packham is working to change the impression that some might have of autism and autistic people, and looking in particular to help the next generation of autistic children and young people who have enormous potential but are at high risk of isolation and depression due to a lack of understanding and appropriate support. While he may only have been diagnosed in 2005, Packham owes the degree of his obsession with the natural world and conservation to his Asperger’s, and while sensory processing can be a problem for him in his everyday life, this passion for wildlife and the environment has led to a hugely successful career as the presenter of programmes such as The Really Wild Show and Springwatch.

 

Diversity Within Neurodivergence

     

Former motorcycle racer and television presenter Guy Martin, best known for his engineering-based feats and projects, and television quiz personality Anne Hegerty of The Chase, were both diagnosed with AS as adults and have spoken about the different ways in which it affects them. Martin has attributed his work ethic, ability to focus, and problem-solving skills to the condition, while Hegerty has stated that she needs to ‘ration social contact’, finding it overwhelming if faced with a situation such as a party for a prolonged period of time. Hegerty has also described her difficulties with multi-tasking, finding that she will focus on something intently and then find it hard to move her attention. This is at odds with Anthony Hopkins’s experience of Asperger’s, and demonstrates the divergence and individuality that exists within people with the same condition. While there are behavioural traits that we understand as being typical of Asperger’s and that are usually present for diagnosis, it is still imperative that autistic people are not stereotyped and are supported based on their specific needs.

 

Research Resources

I found a number of very interesting journal articles about autism and late diagnosis on LibrarySearch by using a few simple keyword searches, for example entering “autism late diagnosis” and “adult diagnosis Asperger’s”. Many of them were clinical studies and perhaps a little too scientific for my own humanities-focused eye but I also found this article about the author’s personal late adult diagnosis and the effect it has had on their identity and sense of self, which gave me a real insight. For those with an interest in researching the diagnosis of autism, there is a wealth of information available through LibrarySearch thanks to the library’s access to a huge number of scientific and medical journals. An area I figured it would be pertinent to note for further delving as there are relevant available online resources is the disparity of experience between white and BAME autistic people, and also between heterosexual and LGBT autistic people. I also found this article, part of a special edition of the journal Autism centred around women and girls on the autism spectrum, about the tendency for ASD to go undiagnosed in girls and women for longer than in boys and men. This is in part due to social and cultural factors, with girls more likely to be socialised to mimic and emulate social norms. For autistic people who intersect these identities of race, sexual orientation and gender, it can become all the more complex.

This is why initiatives such as AAW are so vital. By increasing understanding of autism, its effects in both broad and more nuanced ways, and how autistic people can best be supported, we create a richer environment for everyone. It is interesting to consider the impact AAW and charity organisations like the National Autistic Society might have had on the lives of those diagnosed as adults if it had existed in their early years. Certainly autism hasn’t stood in the way of incredible achievements; in fact it has directly contributed to them, and if autistic people are given the support they need as knowledge and familiarity with ASD grows in their communities, their wellbeing can flourish as they progress and achieve.