Has autism ever been cured

The autistic as the ideal person of the present

"It makes you different and makes you think differently." That said the climate activist Greta Thunberg on a show on the US television channel CBS. She talked about her Asperger's Syndrome - a form of autism. Greta Thunberg is not only open about her diagnosis. Rather, she sees her being different as a superpower, as she repeatedly emphasizes in social media and interviews. As a result, she can, for example, rummage through studies and texts for hours without much effort. But it not only understands the climate crisis, it acts consistently on it. “I cannot understand the double standards of the others. Many say that climate change is bad, but then they carry on normally, ”said the then 16-year-old.

Asperger's Syndrome as "mainstream"

Above-average intelligent, rationally distant, detached from social norms, no pleasant smile, no talking about the bush: According to the cultural scientist and publicist Novina Göhlsdorf, not only many people associate this with Greta Thunberg. This is how some of the typical autistic people present themselves these days, the typical autistic woman. “With Thunberg, a certain idea of ​​autism becomes mainstream, namely that it is at least as much a gift as it is a deficit. But this idea did not only arise with Thunberg. "

Among other things, Göhlsdorf researched at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies IFK in Vienna what different ideas about autism existed and existed, for example in science and literature, everyday and pop culture. "I'm interested in how the view of autism has changed and what that in turn reveals about social changes and debates."

From pathology to spectrum

It took a long time to get to Greta Thunberg, who today speaks proudly about her Asperger's Syndrome and is celebrated by many. The term autism first appeared around 1907. It was initially used to name a symptom of schizophrenic people who allegedly live in their own world and are strongly guided by inner ideas. In the 1940s, autism was described as a mental illness in its own right that only affects children. "One saw the essence of child autism in the fact that the children, above all, are not in emotional contact with their environment, that they remain closed and that it is not understandable what is going on in them," says Göhlsdorf.

It took another 40 years or so until it was realized that autism cannot be cured and that autistic children become autistic adults. It was the 1980s when most science stopped talking about a rare and psychosis-like pathology. Rather, from then on, autism was gradually understood as a disorder that can take very different forms and in some even leads to top cognitive performance. “The idea of ​​the autism spectrum emerged, which has finally established itself today. That is, people are diagnosed as autistic who do not use verbal language or who rely on support on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, however, people who articulate themselves verbally, live independently and are employed also receive a diagnosis. One speaks of low-function and high-function autism. "

Computers and autistic people

At the same time, according to Göhlsdorf, in 1988 an autistic person appeared on the big screen with the film "Rain Man", who not only lives in his own world, but also has spectacular talents. For example, he can memorize an entire phone book with just one look or see at a glance how many matches have fallen to the floor. “It is staged as a calculating machine,” is their analysis.

Göhlsdorf does not consider this to be a coincidence. Rather, the cultural scientist attributes the changes in ideas about autism to technological developments “and their social negotiation”. At that time, home computers were becoming more and more important for everyday life. According to Göhlsdorf, they gave rise to a new idea of ​​the calculating machine that was ultimately carried over to the debates about autism in science and pop culture.

According to the cultural scientist, it is also technology that places people with autism more at the center of society and makes them more visible. In the 2000s, for example, the Internet became an important communication platform on which autism communities are formed. “These entanglements between online cultures and autism cultures also led to the belief that people with autism have particularly intimate technological relationships. It also has a tradition of portraying the autistic person as a lover of devices or himself as a device. ”Along with this, the idea spread that most programmers in Silicon Valley are on the autism spectrum, explains the researcher.

Man of the present and future

To this day, the general public is dominated by the image of the highly functional, technically adept autistic person who, in the opinion of many, is male, as Göhlsdorf emphasizes. In the IT industry, people are specifically looking for employees with highly functional autism because, it is said, they are extremely good at recognizing details and patterns and are able to repeat certain processes over and over with great patience.

Here, too, Göhlsdorf draws parallels to current discourses and fears in society, in which many no longer understand how the digital world works. “For a long time, people with autism have been seen as an enigmatic figure in whom something is going on that cannot be understood. So there is continuity in thinking autism and processes that are no longer comprehensible together today. "

However, this idea ignores the fact that today there are more answers than ever to the question of what autism could be. This is largely due to the fact that more and more people with autism describe their own experiences.

Not all of them see themselves as “computer nerds” and define themselves through island talents, explains Göhlsdorf. Many autistic people report that they perceive everyday stimuli such as sounds, light and smells particularly strongly. For many, this is a sometimes overwhelming experience. At the same time, it enables an intensive relationship with the environment.

The look at yourself

“Autism has always been seen primarily as a disorder of interpersonal relationships. The self-descriptions of many autistic people now suggest that autism may be associated with the ability to have exceptionally intimate relationships - with what surrounds us and what most people do not experience sensually. "

Ultimately, however, she is not interested in finding an answer to the question of what autism is. Rather, the research project is intended to show how closely the various answers to this question are related to social developments and debates, emphasizes the cultural scientist.

“I don't think anyone can ever say: This is autism. We can only talk about what is understood by this term by a specific person within a specific context. In examining this, I show that any understanding of autism tells us about the time it occurs. Every understanding of autism is therefore diagnostic of the time. "

Ruth Hutsteiner, Ö1 Science

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