Autism, More Than Just ‘Rain Man’

Dr David Preece, Senior Lecturer at the University of Northampton blogs about how social situations create different challenges for people with autism.

I travel a lot for work and sometimes the person next to me on the train or plane will ask what I do. When I say that I work with people with autism, it seems it’s the social differences in autism that people are most aware of. The film ‘Rain Man’ is now almost 30 years old, but it is this type of autistic social behaviour — ‘aloof’ and isolated — that is still most commonly associated with autism.

But not all people with autism are like this. If you think about ‘neurotypical’ people, our social behaviour is on a continuum. Some of us are shy, some of us are extrovert, and some are in between. How we behave socially also depends on the circumstances, the setting and how we feel at the time. For example, last week in Zagreb — for the first time in my life — I sang at a karaoke. It was just with people I know well and it felt OK.

Similarly, social behaviour in autism is on a continuum. Yes, some people are very isolated, but others may present as being very passive, while others still may be highly interested in being social (though they may not be particularly good at it). Temple Grandin, another American professor with autism, has described trying to understand social behaviour as like being ‘an anthropologist on Mars’ — that is how alien all the social rules and niceties we understand instinctively seem to her.

And their social interaction will depend on external issues too. What is the environment like? How clear is it what they are supposed to be doing? And vitally importantly, how sensitively are other people interacting with them? No one is social alone, and social interaction is a core difficulty in autism. But it is down to all of us to support those with autism to be a part of the social world.

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