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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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3 Sources of knowledge

How have your initial ideas about autism compared to what you have read so far? You may have been pleased to have your ideas confirmed, or surprised by what you didn’t know. As you will see, it is also important to think about where your initial ideas came from.

Activity 5 Information about autism: reliable or not?

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Think now about the sources of your ideas about autism when you started studying this course. Did they come from articles or books you have read, films, the internet, or other sources? Spend a few minutes noting what your sources were, and for each source, how reliable you think the information would be.

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Answer

Did you mention any of the following?

  • the internet
  • other media such as newspapers/radio
  • fictional stories and films
  • theatre
  • television documentary
  • factual books
  • personal acquaintance
  • published autobiographies and parental accounts of autism
  • academic articles
  • conferences and lectures.

Although ‘popular’ sources such as the internet, newspapers and radio can be useful, the claims they make are not subject to the same standards of verification that are required for claims based on research or clinical practice. Fictional sources such as the theatre, books and films can also be helpful in bringing conditions like autism to public attention. But there is no requirement to be ‘true’ to the condition, and directors may choose to emphasise or exaggerate particular aspects for dramatic effect. Knowing an autistic person is obviously an extremely good way to gain understanding, but since each autistic person is different, knowledge derived in this way may not be representative of everyone on the spectrum.

Much of the reliable information that we have about how and why autistic people differ from the ‘neurotypical’ (non-autistic) population comes from clinical and research work, which is spread through academic conferences and lectures and published in academic journals and books. These sorts of sources were used for the quiz answers earlier. Two more very important sources for understanding what autism is like are personal testimonies by individuals with autism and their parents and carers. Again, however, individual or parental accounts may not be representative of everyone on the spectrum.

In the next section you will read about the different methods used by researchers and clinicians to derive evidence about autism. Following that there will be some personal testimonies from autistic people and from parents.