Many more autistics are being diagnosed now than a few decades ago, and autism was not known before Kanner reported on it in 1943. The cause of the autism “epidemic” is a subject of continuous debate: some people claim that autism as a disorder is increasing, perhaps due to environmental toxins or vaccines. Others, among which I am, claim that the disorder is just diagnosed more frequently, due to increased awareness and broadened criteria. However, these kids and adults should come to the attention of clinicians before they’ll ever be diagnosed. Kanner did not grab a group of children out of the streets, invent a disorder, labeled them with it and reported in a journal. A child or an adult will not be labeled with autism or Asperger’s unless they have significant problems at work, at school, in socialization or in other important areas of functioning. The simple fact that a clinician knows more about autism, will not get them to diagnose a neurotypical child as autistic, and the DSM criteria for Asperger’s are nothing like “shyness”, regardless of what anti-psychiatry activists will want us to believe.
So does that say that autism should truly be increasing? Not necessarily. The constellation of neurological characteristics now diagnosed as autism, has probably always existed, just like the neurological constellations for ADHD and dyslexia have likely always existed. However, do you think that, during the time that no-one could read, anyone was diagnosed as dyslexic? Not likely.
I’ve recently been reading a book in which autistic adults tell their stories. The editor of the book, herself not autistic, speculates in the preface that autism may be more noticeable these days due to our modern information society. After all, society was never as fast-paced as it is now, and never did people need to process so much information and stimulation at once. This does not mean that there’s suddenly sprung up a group of people with neurologies that are incompatible with these expectations, but that people with a neurology incompatible with these expectations, are more likely to get stuck – and, once they’ve gotten stuck, end up in the clinician’s office.
I am not sayig that autism is merely a social construct. It is not. In fact, autistics do have significant neurological differences from neurotypical people, and in this world, not recognizing this, is setting up autistics for failure. But in a world that doesn’t value the processing and filtering of large chunks of information at once as much as ours does, these neurological differences would not have been a problem, just as dyslexia “didn’t exist” when most people couldn’t read anyway and ADHD “didn’t exist” when most people carried out physical labor – for which hyperactivity may be an asset.
This is really the reason why I won’t take “Einsteinaise” trivializations of my problems: Einstein doesn’t live in 2008. I understand the good intentions behind such comparisons: to show that the autistic mindset does have its positive aspects, to show that autistics can accomplish great things, etc. I agree to both of these, but simply saying that Einstein was autistic so I really shouldn’t have many problems, makes no sense. All of us are connected to the society we live in, and if that society is not compatible with our neurological or psychological characteristics, that is going to cause hardship. Calling our problems social constructs, will not ease that – because the world isn’t going to change in a heartbeat.