Thirty years ago I was walking down a corridor in a mental handicap centre (as they were termed in those days), when a young man who was maybe 25-years-old handed me a picture. This was a coloured line drawing that depicted Dublin Airport. I saw planes sitting on the apron beside the pier. Each plane was drawn both to scale and in perspective. Indeed, both elements were perfectly balanced. The buildings in the background were precisely outlined, so much so that the picture as a whole drew one into it. Here was an aerial view of the scene where I and many others started and finished our journeys to and from Ireland. After examining the picture, I handed it back to the artist. He could not speak, indeed did not really communicate at all except to acknowledge my praise for the piece of work. This young man was diagnosed as having autism. It must be said that he had an accompanying diagnosis of severe mental handicap, yet he was capable of drawing perfect pictures. However, the only subjects for his pictures were aeroplanes and tractors. Something had taken his interest so that the wonderful talent that he possessed was focused solely on those two topics. I was intrigued as to what was happening to enable such a fine ability to coexist with such a disability.
This issue of Frontline seeks to answer some of the questions that came to mind so long ago and that have returned to stimulate one’s thought and reflection at other times down the years. Autism seems to this writer to be fashionable. The very intense contradiction exemplified by my young acquaintance from the past—i.e., the coexistence of islets of sublime ability with often severe accompanying disability—confounds understanding and people want to know more.
The foundation for this issue is Michael Rutter’s exhaustive account of the causes of autism. I have included this article because it comes from one of the most eminent scientists in the field and also because it lays out the facts clearly. Although it is somewhat difficult to read, it repays the attention that it requires because it evaluates the predisposing factors that may influence a diagnosis of autism precisely. Of most particular interest is that the role of the MMR as a possible predisposing factor is evaluated and largely disposed of. Mitchel Fleming’s article complements Michael Rutter’s, in that it considers the increasing rate of diagnosis of autism in Ireland and worldwide. Of particular interest is the report form California where he notes ‘that the increase in the number of children with autism mirrored almost identically the decrease in the number of children diagnosed with an intellectual disability over an eight-year period’.
In any special feature the editor tries to achieve a balance whereby different aspects of the topic are considered. Accordingly there are several articles that look at the different approaches to teaching children with autism. Rita Duffy’s article on peer tutoring in a mainstream school offers an intriguing and novel view of one way to achieve social integration for children with autism in schools. This feature includes an article on the mainstream approach known as TEEACH, and also one on a different approach, namely sensory integration. In all the different sections of this special feature, it is the intention of the editor to stimulate thought and discussion, as well as to inform about the subject. In order to achieve that I have included a book reviewed by my colleague Paul Horan and a poem that Paul has written that brings it all back home.
Lastly, I would like to point out Michael Kendrick’s article on the role of social movements in society. The ongoing difficulties that the disability movement is experiencing over the Disability Bill are set in a somewhat different context by Kendrick’s article. He frames the struggle for rights in Ireland in a long-term context and ends on a note of hope for all of us who find the going difficult at certain turns in the road. His final comments are both a call to arms and encouragement to persistence:
‘Governments eventually do respond [to the demand for change], but often only once the essential battles have been fought and settled within community.’