“You’re underwater and you are responsible for 100 people, and a nuclear reactor, and you’re operating in an environment that is fundamentally hard,” Britain’s second sea lord said recently, discussing his former role as a commander of a nuclear submarine. “If you make a mistake, you will sink and you will die, and everybody else will … the focus and the ability to deliver on the complexity of that operation is something that I was naturally comfortable and reasonably good at.”
Nick Hine was explaining why he believes his autism made him a better naval officer. The neurological condition affects social interaction, but manifests in strikingly varied and complex ways in each individual. Some require full-time support and care. Others regard it as a difference rather than a disability, pointing to their skills and abilities, such as deep focus and resilience to peer pressure. In his recent book, The Pattern Seekers, Simon Baron-Cohen – an influential though controversial expert on autism – argues that people with “hyper-systemising minds” that focus on precision, details and systems have driven the development of civilisation, and that there has been significant overlap between innovators and autistic people. Ignoring those with the condition squanders talent and risks the groupthink that comes from hiring people whose minds work the same way.
The primary costs of such narrow vision are borne by autistic people themselves, of course. On Monday – the start of autism awareness week – new research found that more children in England are autistic than previously thought: around one in 57, reflecting a global rise thought to be largely due to improved recognition. But while only around a third have learning disabilities, many more will struggle at school. The Office for National Statistics says that only one in five autistic adults are employed. Changing that will require not only recognising their abilities, but also adapting working environments, practices and expectations.
Yet autistic people should not be valued only if they are seen as “productive”. This year has shown how far away we are from accepting neurodiversity in its truest sense. Autistic people were among those placed under blanket “do not resuscitate” orders due to Covid, without their knowledge or consent; the Care Quality Commission found in December that such notices had led to potentially avoidable deaths. Essential social care that many families relied upon vanished. While elderly people in care homes were prioritised for vaccination, younger people with learning disabilities, some of whom were autistic, had to wait much longer, despite evidence that the death rate among them was up to six times higher than for the general population in the first wave of Covid-19. Research conducted pre-pandemic suggested two out of three autistic adults were not getting the support they needed, and the public spending watchdog now warns that devastating service cuts are likely as the council funding crisis deepens.
Embracing neurodiversity must mean not merely celebrating people who are capable of thriving even in a world designed by and for neurotypicals, but also supporting those who are severely affected. It should not need saying that autistic people are valuable not because their autism can make them useful to society, improving a company’s performance or advancing science – but because they are people.