“There was a growing awareness that autism wasn’t just about kids,” he tells me. “I was receiving more and more emails saying, ‘My son’s an adult, but he’s never fitted in. Might he have autism?’ An adult couldn’t go to a child and adolescent clinic, so where were they meant to go? If they went to a learning disability clinic, and they had an IQ above 70, they’d be turned away. So these people were like a lost generation. That was a phrase I used a lot.”
The National Autistic Society estimates that there are currently around 700,000 people living with autism in the UK – more than one in every 100 of the population. Some of these people have learning disabilities. Some are what the medical vocabulary terms “non-verbal”, or unable to speak. Others are so-called “high-functioning”, a sub-group that includes those with Asperger syndrome, the condition named after the Austrian paediatrician who in the 1940s worked with a group of children he famously termed “little professors”. Asperger syndrome is distinguished by the fact that people who have it display no language delay as toddlers or small children. (Asperger died in 1980, long before the term “Asperger syndrome” entered popular usage. It has since been dropped from the relevant American diagnostic manual, but is still used in the UK.)
It is among this latter group that you will find many of the 20% of autistic people currently thought to have been diagnosed as adults. No national figures for adult autism diagnoses are available, but anecdotal evidence suggests numbers are rising: Baron-Cohen tells me that four years ago, 100 cases in Cambridgeshire were referred to his clinic; in the first four months of 2016 alone, it received 400 referrals.
Most of the terms used to describe autism don’t do justice to the nuanced, complicated traits bound up with it. Nonetheless, all its variants are covered by the catch-all term autism spectrum disorder, or ASD; people who dispute that autism is any kind of “disorder” prefer the term autism spectrum condition. The word “spectrum” was first used in this context by the pioneering British researcher Lorna Wing, who died in 2014. Baron-Cohen explains: “What she meant at the time, I think, was a spectrum within those who come to clinical attention. Where it’s gone since is that this spectrum runs right through society, out into the general population.”
My own interest in autism began when my son James received a diagnosis of ASD at the age of three. Back then, some things seemed strange: the social distance between him and his peers; his fixations with particular music (the Clash, the Beatles) or places; his pointed dislike of some foods or sounds (I still curse whoever invented the public toilet hand-dryer); his amazing facility with technology. Now, these things are simply part of the fabric of our shared life. I recognise echoes of myself in some of these traits (the music, the technology), and of plenty of other people: more than anything, his 10 years have brought me an ever-growing understanding of the complexities of human psychology, both among those diagnosed as “on the spectrum” and so-called “neurotypical” people.
Unfortunately, the everyday world has yet to catch up. Only 16% of adults diagnosed with autism in the UK are in full-time, paid employment. In 2014 Baron-Cohen’s team found that two-thirds of the patients in their clinic had either felt suicidal or planned to kill themselves, and that a third had attempted to do so. “To my mind, this is nothing to do with autism or Asperger syndrome,” he says. “These are secondary mental-health problems. You came into the world with autism, and the way the world reacted, or didn’t react, to you has led to a second problem, which is depression. And that’s preventable.”