John Harris

Journalist & Author

We have put autism on TV but can’t accept it in real life | John Harris

The BBC’s The A Word drama is a step forward, but the struggle against ignorance has light years to go

Not that long ago, autism seemed to be a subject largely confined to the fringes of the media; now, all of a sudden, it seems to be absolutely everywhere. On BBC1 there is The A Word, a kind of high-end soap opera built around the travails of a family trying to help their autistic son. Last week’s issue of the Economist had autism as its cover story, with the headline “Beautiful minds, wasted”.

In bookshops there are still prominent displays devoted to the text that triggered some of the current upsurge of interest: Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, the elegant history of the scientific and cultural understanding of autism that won last year’s Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction. Meanwhile, the news wires buzz with autism stories – from sobering research about autistic people’s apparently low life expectancies, through wildly contrasting claims that they are less likely to develop life-threatening diseases (“Can AUTISM protect you from cancer?” is surely a Daily Mail classic) to serious concerns about the implications for lots of autistic people of continuing council cuts.

Related: Autistic people are not tragedies. My life has value and joy | Sarah Kurchak

Related: Movie stars have their uses: medical science isn’t one of them | Catherine Bennett

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