The rise of autism

Diagnoses of autism have "exploded" in recent years. Why?  There is a lot of doubt that there is  a real underlying increase in cases of autism.  Most psychologists would account for the rise as an effect of expanded diagnostic criteria.  And that in turn is an aspect of what is often called the  "medicalization" of deviant behaviour.  That is the explanation that I incline towards.  I am aware that there are some claims of a role for diet and pollution but I see no clear evidence of that

A friend of mine who is a most experienced practicing psychologist has however offered me a rather novel explanation -- an explanation that is both sociological and draws strongly on history. History is the only laboratory of sociology so it is undoubtedly the place to look for sociological explanations. 

The starting point of the explanation is that the very first diagnosis of autism was by Kanner in 1943.  Did he invent it?  Why was it unknown before his work?  Clearly, it must have existed all along but why did it come to attention as a recognized syndrome so recently?

My psychologist friend has come up with an explanation.  He says he was recently reading a book about etiquette in the Victorian era and was amazed by the minuteness of the rules that governed social interactions at that time.  The whole idea of social etiquette has become rather passe these days but the aim of the rules was to make social interactions easy and pleasant for all parties.  It was not some authoritarian invention.  It was a set of arrangements that had arisen  through trial and error over time that most people were comfortable with. There was such a clear consensus about the rules that you could write books setting out the rules for those who needed to learn them.  So the rules did have something of a straitjacket character

And that was GOOD for autistic people, or at least the less disabled element of the autism spectrum.  Autistics did not have to feel their way towards socially acceptable behaviour.  It was all very clearly laid down for them by society.  The rules were made to ease social interactions and they had that effect for anybody who followed them  So the social expectations of the day DRAGOONED autistics into adaptive behaviour  They did not have work it all out themselves

That explanation will not of course work for extremely withdrawn forms of autism but for the more articulate parts of the spectrum it makes considerable sense.  It is only the breakdown of social mores resulting from two ghastly world wars that deprived social behaviour of much of its guidelines. The old order was destroyed and not replaced. And once Kanner had described juvenile autism, people began to see degrees of it elsewhere.  And that is where we are today

This is not of course a glorification of Victorian society.  Charles Dickens has convinced us all that Victorian society was thoroughly wrongheaded. It is simply an argument that Victorian rules had some benefit for some people, not all of whom were high and mighty -- people with poor social competence generally

This is not of course a theory about the origins and causes of autism but merely a theory about its visibility.  So what are the causes of autism?

I remember when I was doing a seminar in abnormal psychology as part of my Masters degree in psychology in the department of psychology at the university of Sydney in 1968, Kanner was much mentioned, but the discussion centred around whether autism was a psychosis. I have never thought that

The  long-running theory of autism traced the condition to "refrigerator mothers".  I forget who first proposed that theory but I would shoot  him if I could. To blame poor distressed mothers for the dysfunction of their child   was extremely cruel and unforgivable to my mind.  Fortunately that theory fitted so few actual cases that it was perforce eventually abandoned.

That led to an exploration of physical causes instead. I was a party to those debates and found one explanation persuasive: That autism was caused caused by excessive stimulus sensitivity which was in turn caused by an overdeveloped cerebral cortex.  I still subscribe to that theory and believe that it is now the mainstream one. There is no complete consensus in any area of science, however, climate science excepted, of course.

As a small amusing note in confirmation of that theory, I have observed informally that autistic people  tend to wear big hats! And when I met my present girlfriend via a dating  site she said that the thing she most liked about my photo  was my high forehead. She is very bright, has an intense interest in psychology and believes herself to be a high functioning autistic -- a diagnosis with which I concur.

I have had many papers published in the academic journals on abnormal psychology topics but none on autism.  My interest in it was however sparked by a recent realization that I too am a high functioning autistic.  And that has benefited my social life. You can see from the early photo with my sister below below what my forehead has been like from the beginning.  Plenty of room for a large cerebral cortex.

I have however had 4 marriages and three ladies still call on me regularly even though I am in my 80th year so I think that promotes the view that at least some autistics can have an interesting life

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