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The Stranger in the Mirror

Michael Blastland explores the history of society's and medicine's ideas about autism. He finds that the theories about the condition tell us more about ourselves than about autism.

What is autism, and what causes it? Nobody knows, but there have been many theories, from the plausible to the offensive to the downright wacky. Autism remains a mysterious enigma and thus a receptacle of whatever we want to project onto it. Author and broadcaster Michael Blastland, whose son is autistic, delves into a rich archive and finds that looking at autism is like looking into a mirror. In it we see our own fears, beliefs, hopes and cultural prejudices.

Autism was formally identified in 1943, by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. It existed long before that, of course, but autistic children were instead seen as "wild children", or mentally disabled, or bewitched. In some parts of the world they still are.

Michael Blastland takes us on a journey through the history of the theories about autism, which is in effect a history of social or scientific trends. With the post-war rise of psychoanalysis, for example, autism was blamed on mothers, so-called "refrigerator mothers". (Audio from the film Refrigerator Mothers is featured courtesy of Kartemquin Films, it was produced by David E. Simpson and J.J. Hanley.) When we worried about science messing with nature and our bodies (remember the BSE scandal?) we blamed vaccines. Then it was genes. And now, with economic need, autism and its more high-functioning form Asperger's Syndrome are almost fashionable. Silicon Valley has been called the largest sheltered workplace scheme in history.

Whenever there has been a twist in our attitude to autism, it has come out of a new scientific or social trend. The latest of which may be that as we are becoming a more diverse society, autism is just another kind of different.

Producer: Arlene Gregorius.

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58 minutes

Last on

Sat 16 Jan 2016 20:00