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Book Review: Autism and Asperger Syndrome

11 May 2010
By Dr Alex Dedman
Postdoctoral researcher in genetics, University College London
Appeared in BioNews 558

Autism and Asperger Syndrome

By Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 019850490X , ISBN-13: 978-0198504900

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Autism and Asperger Syndrome' by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

Autism and Asperger Syndrome is a welcome update of its predecessor, the singularly named Autism which was first published by Simon Baron-Cohen in 1993. The expanded title of this new edition speaks volumes about just how far the field has moved forward since publication of the first book. As Professor Baron-Cohen points out in his acknowledgements, Asperger Syndrome was not even officially recognised as a diagnosable disease until 1994, yet in just two decades the prevalence of it and other autistic spectrum conditions has increased an estimated 25-fold. Today, as many as one per cent of all babies born will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition - enough to scare even the most rationally-minded reader. However, as is typical of his approach to the entire book, Baron-Cohen thoroughly and impartially outlines the potential reasons for this supposed leap in numbers, which it turns out are largely explained by changes in the diagnostic classifications and better recognition of the disease by health professionals.

This book is designed as an introduction and summary of autism and Asperger disorders for parents, teachers, clinicians and others who need to know. It starts with very useful example case descriptions of two children, one with 'classical' autism and one with Asperger Syndrome, which really highlights the similarities and differences between the two conditions. Baron-Cohen takes pains to show the boys' behaviours in a balanced light; both the disadvantages and advantages of their condition. This approach of addressing autism spectrum conditions in a relatively positive light where possible is a theme which runs throughout the book, and though he makes no bones about just how severe and disabling these conditions can be, Baron-Cohen often points out that even those with low-functioning autistic spectrum conditions can have abilities and talents which surpass those of the 'neurotypical' person.

Throughout the ensuing chapters Baron-Cohen sets out to explain to the reader current theories, concepts, and supporting evidence for the causes and development of autism spectrum conditions. He also usefully outlines current thinking on the huge range of education, treatments and interventions available, and goes some way in explaining just how useful they have been shown to be, surely very relevant information for the parent of a newly-diagnosed child. There is also a detailed history of the study of the disease, and helpful mentions of now mostly discredited theories including those suggesting autism could be caused by parental neglect or the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination. It is the inclusion of these old theories alongside the new which really shows how far research, diagnosis, and attitudes to autism spectrum conditions have come.

Baron-Cohen makes the interesting point that although autism in on the increase, greater recognition and diagnosis of the disease could be seen as a good thing, as it allows more people access the services they need, and the more people who are recognised as needing these services, the more funding they will receive. In helping to remove the stigma and taboo surrounding diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions Baron-Cohen again reveals his passion and compassion for people who suffer from these conditions.

My one small criticism of this book is perhaps that (except for a small blurb on the back) there is no formal introduction of the author. Many of the theories discussed in this book (such as the theories of mind blindness, the masculine brain, and the Empathizing-Systemising theory) were either first introduced or heavily developed by the author himself. This is not to say Baron-Cohen is biased towards his own work - quite the opposite, he casts a critical eye over the shortfalls of all current theories developed to explain autism, including his own. Early in the book the author introduces other eminent researchers in the field and if anything Baron-Cohen is too modest in not mentioning his own achievements. However, it is always good to know exactly who is presenting the 'facts' and perhaps a small introduction of the author and his accomplishments at the start would allow the reader to easily place his research affiliations.

I came to this book with the average person's befuddled ideas about autism spectrum conditions; a mixture of 'Rain Man' type miracle stories, newspaper scare-stories, and friend-of-a-friend-with-an-autistic-child stories. This book straightens out the facts, explaining not only the limits of knowledge and conflicts of ideas in this field but also the huge progress which has been made in detecting and helping people with autism spectrum conditions in the past few years. This book will surely go some-way to help confused parents make sense of their child's condition.

Buy Autism and Asperger Syndrome from Amazon UK.

31 May 2011 - by Mehmet Fidanboylu 
Gene activity in two brain regions is different in autism, scientists say. A US study found activity patterns were similar in the frontal and temporal lobes of people with autism, despite the lobes having different functions...
6 April 2010 - by Professor Derek Bolton 
Genetics has made enormous advances towards understanding the causes of medical and psychiatric conditions. We know from the past few decades of research that many common psychiatric conditions have some contribution from genes, ranging from modest (30 to 40 per cent) to high (over 60 per cent). Moving on from this general finding, two questions dominate current research...
8 March 2010 - by Sandy Starr 
In their concluding remarks, all three speakers said the answer to the question implicit in the event's title - if you are genetically predisposed to a neurodevelopmental disorder, does this effectively mean you are marked for life? - is an emphatic 'no'. Nonetheless, they had divergent views on the likelihood of successfully applying the fruits of genetic research into mental health...
16 November 2009 - by Dr Elisabeth Hill 
Numerous grant funding calls, as well as public and scientific debates are now focusing on the cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While it is important that we search for the cause(s) of the disorder - in order to improve support, education, employment and so on for those on the spectrum - such an approach is problematic for two reasons. First, there is an implicit suggestion that the quest for a cause will be simple and thus achievable. Second, there is a general assumption that there...
23 October 2009 - by Sandy Starr 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET) debate 'From Autism to Asperger's: Disentangling the Genetics and Sociology of the Autistic Spectrum' took place in the UK Houses of Parliament on the evening of 20 October 2009, two days before the Autism Bill received its third and final reading in the House of Lords....
12 October 2009 - by Dr Elisabeth Hill 
Most of us are familiar in some way or another with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We have seen news reports, watched films or documentaries trying to explain this puzzling condition and showing examples of a child's unusual social, communication and repetitive behaviours. We may know a child with ASD or have a child with ASD. Recent evidence suggests that about one per cent of the entire population (one in 100 people) fall somewhere on the spectrum (1,2). Whilst we still understand relative...
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