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It’s time to change our thinking on autism, says leading expert from the University of Bradford

A leading expert on autism has called for a re-evaluation of how the wider public views people on what is known as the spectrum.

Professor Peter Mitchell, who takes up his post as head of social sciences at the University of Bradford on Monday April 6, said a recent study had shed new light on how neurotypical people and those on the spectrum perceived one another.

His comments mark World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), which forms part of World Autism Awareness Week (March 30-April 5).

Prof Mitchell, who served as head of the School of Psychology at Nottingham’s UK campus (2005-2009) before taking on the role of founding head of psychology at Nottingham’s campus in Malaysia (2009-2012) and Dean of Science (2010-2014), said: “For three decades, the view and the focus has been on how autistic people have difficulty in understanding other people. For the first time, we have shown that this misunderstanding is mutual.

“Other people (i.e. neurotypical people) also have difficulty understanding autistic people. Hence, while in the past we assumed the lack of connection between autistic and neurotypical people was caused by a problem that resides within autistic people, now we have discovered the failure of understanding applies to both.”

In a recent paper, Is There a Link Between Autistic People Being Perceived Unfavourably and Having a Mind That Is Difficult to Read?, (Alkhaldi, R.S., Sheppard, E. & Mitchell, P. (2019) Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 3973–3982. ), Prof Mitchell outlines tests in which groups of neurotypical people and those with autism were exposed to a series of everyday situations designed to provoke a specific response, such as humour, frustration and surprise.

The results revealed that while autistic people were often unable to ‘read’ the reactions of neurotypical people, the same also applied in reverse. He said this “misperception” had less of a mental impact on neurotypical people but could lead to poor mental health and wellbeing among those on the spectrum.

“We argue that exclusion of autistic people from society likely serves to prevent opportunities for neurotypical people to learn from cross-neurological social interactions, and maintains or even increases division within society. This in turn means society does not fully benefit from the valuable contribution that autistic people could make in many spheres of life, including innovation, the workforce, and culture.”

Although autism was not officially diagnosed until the 20th century, it is assumed the condition has existed throughout history. Indeed, people have questioned whether some of the most prolific names in science – including Newton and Einstein – displayed autistic traits. Even today, well known people such as actor Dan Aykroyd identify themselves as being on the autistic spectrum.

While the prevailing categorisation of autism has been ‘medical’, with its subsequent implication of ‘treatment’, Prof Mitchell is advocating what he calls a ‘transactional’ model, which seeks to alter everybody’s behaviour, not just those who have autism.

Prof Mitchell said more work needed to be done but added: “If increased social interaction and inclusion were to occur from an early point in childhood, this could alter the developmental course for both autistic and neurotypical people. Fewer misunderstandings might occur, more favourable cross-group impressions could be formed, and ultimately perhaps a distinctive cross-neurological social interaction style could emerge.

“Society should change, therefore, to be more accepting of diversity; in so doing, an opportunity would arise for neurotypical people to understand, value and learn from autistic people. It would thus be highly productive if neurotypical people could be enlightened as to the different kinds of code that are signalled in the behaviour of autistic people, enabling them to interpret the signals more informatively and more positively.”