Age of Autism: rethinking 'normal'

Monday 12 October, 7.00pm until 8.30pm, Foyles Charing Cross Road

Venue: Foyles Charing Cross Road, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2 0EB

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

From being a developmental disability little heard of outside of medical circles and families directly affected by the condition twenty years ago, the idea of autism has become part of everyday culture and speech. From the figure of the autistic savant promoted in films such as Rain Man to George Osborne’s ‘autistic’ jibe aimed at Gordon Brown in 2006, autism has become shorthand for social phenomena of all sorts. For anti-MMR campaigners, autism is a consequence of the toxicity of modern medicine and modern life; self-help groups such as Aspies for Freedom make autism a matter of identity politics, arguing for a positive identity, and for people to ‘self-identify’ as autistic. Indeed, the autistic spectrum seems to be ever-widening, with a 2009 report arguing that it is wrong to see autism as a ‘distinct illness’ and that autistic traits are far more common in children than recognised.

Are we suffering from an epidemic of autism? Or are we living through what has been termed the ‘Age of Autism’, where a developmental condition has taken on a far wider definition and meaning in society? Has increased debate and discussion about autism helped or hindered those suffering from the condition and their families? And what does our fascination with autism say about us as a society?

Professor Richard E Ashcroft
professor of bioethics, Queen Mary University of London

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Dr Elisabeth Hill
senior lecturer, Goldsmiths College, University of London; co-editor, Autism: mind and brain

Professor Stuart Murray
professor, contemporary literatures and film, University of Leeds; author, Representing Autism: culture, narrative, fascination

Sandy Starr
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake

Produced by
Dr Shirley Dent communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake
Recommended readings
Making autism ‘normal’ won’t help my son

It may reduce the stigma but it trivialises the learning difficulties and isolation sufferers endure.

Michael Fitzpatrick, The Times, 12 October 2009

Genetics and autism: Untangling the debate

In recent years, we have come to understand more about the genetics of ASD. Although we are at a very early stage of understanding the biology of ASD, genetic research promises much.

Richard Ashcroft, BioNews, 22 September 2009

From autism to Asperger's: disentangling the genetics and sociology of the autistic spectrum

The early narrow definition of autism emerged out of the psychiatry of the pre-war years and became widely accepted in the post-war decades. While research revealed a substantial genetic contribution to autism, in the late twentieth century there was an upsurge in the diagnosis of autism, particularly among 'higher functioning' individuals, and the concept of the 'autistic spectrum' became established.

Michael Fitzpatrick, BioNews, 22 September 2009

Are we all autistic now?

Lumping Mozart and Einstein in with those who have severe socialisation problems is no help to sufferers or science.

Sandy Starr, spiked, 15 September 2009

How Gary McKinnon became a cause celebre

British computer hacker Gary McKinnon's fight against extradition to the US has drawn support from a large and diverse range of influential people. How did his case become such a cause celebre?

Caroline McClatchey, BBC News, 4 August 2009

One in every 64 children could have autism, Cambridge researchers find

Hundreds of thousands of children with autism have not been diagnosed, Cambridge University scientists have found.

Rebecca Smith, Telegraph, 30 May 2009

Erasing Autism

Scientists are closing in on the genes linked to autism. So why is Ari Ne'eman so worried?

Claudia Kalb, Newsweek, 17 May 2009

I don't want to be 'cured' of autism, thanks

Discussion of prenatal testing hasn't included the people it plans to eliminate: society disables us more than autism ever could.

Anya Ustaszewski, Guardian Comment is Free, 15 January 2009

‘Crusade against autism’: doing more harm than good

The author of the new book Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion asks why autism has sidelined even Joe the Plumber in the US election.

Michael Fitzpatrick, spiked, 30 October 2008

Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion

Biomedical theories of autism can offer a plausible explanation of the supposed ‘autism epidemic’ and are increasingly accepted by parents and activists but do they work and are they safe?

Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 20 October 2008

Representing Autism

From concerns of an 'autism epidemic' to the MMR vaccine crisis, autism is a source of peculiar fascination in the contemporary media. Discussion of the condition has been largely framed within medicine, psychiatry and education but there has been no exploration of its power within representative narrative forms.

Stuart Murray, Liverpool University Press, 30 May 2008

Autism: Mind and Brain

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that allows a unique window on the relationship between mind and brain. The study of autism provides insight into the brain basis of the complex social interactions typical of human beings, since a profound impairment in social interactions is the hallmark of autistic disorders.

Uta Frith & Elisabeth Hill (eds.), Oxford University Press, 15 January 2004

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