Modern life triggers autism

1st December 2006 at 00:00
According to the University of California, autism is a "complex developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships, and respond appropriately to the environment".

It comes in many forms, varies greatly in severity and has, over the past 20 years, become much more common. In Scottish primary schools, the number of pupils displaying signs of autism rose by 400 per cent between 1995 and 2005, with almost 2,000 now affected.

Scotland seems particularly at risk and some authorities even describe the country as one of the epi-centres of the condition. Yet, and most worryingly, no one appears to know what causes it. All that is clear is it results in huge heartache for many parents and huge difficulty for teachers, educational administrators and society at large.

At the end of October, HM Inspectorate of Education issued an impressive report, Education for Pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorders, which raises important issues with regard to how schools might assist autistic children and support their parents.

However, some of those parents have reacted badly to the report, with the organisation Autism Rights being particularly scathing. It argues that the inspectorate has ignored wider standards, such as the European Charter of Rights for Persons with Autism, and has over-emphasised the positive nature of what is happening.

It concludes that there has been "no progress in the establishment of objective, verifiable standards for autism education" over the past decade.

Indeed, so strongly do some feel that there is at least one legal case pending, regarding the failure of a local authority to provide for an autistic child.

As ever, the truth may lie somewhere between entrenched positions. Talk to most teachers about autism - particularly primary teachers - and they acknowledge the difficulties such children face.

A curious statistic in the report shows how many children regarded as autistic by their schools lack a formal diagnosis, which suggests that proper procedures may need an overhaul. Teachers know that they often lack training and support, even in recognising the symptoms. Add to that the pressure on an individual faced daily with 20 or more pupils, and the strain that a single disruptive influence can create, and it is clear that the barriers to constant application of the correct approach are significant.

The report is, in that context, a good attempt to take an objective look at the problem and suggest constructive ways of tackling it. I suspect it will be helpful to many practitioners, but it is hard to read it and feel any sense of urgency. Yet urgency is what is required.

Each child only has once chance in education and if that is blighted by the wrong approach, then that life may be blighted forever.

Going to law to enforce a standard in an individual case is not selfish: it is a caring action and it must be seen by the authorities in that way.

In reality, such actions will only cease when causes are understood and tackled. Theories abound, but some of the most interesting current research (which seems to have attracted too little official backing) is endeavouring to discover physiological causes and to ameliorate symptoms by changes in diet and in environment.

Yet the official line in Scotland, right down to school level, appears to be the complacent one: that the rise in cases is due to better diagnosis.

That is not true, as much work in other places, including California, has shown.

Something in our modern life - and particularly in Scotland's modern life - is triggering an explosion in autism and we need to find out what it is.

Scotland must be at the forefront of such activity. Only then will our vulnerable children be free of the risk of falling through whatever safety net the state tries to put in place.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator

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