SEN: Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Child looking out of a window 

Society’s fascination with the talents of autistic-savants has been selectively influential in raising awareness about autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Pioneering Cornish physician John Langdon Down was the first to use the term ‘savant’ in 1887 to describe persons with mental disabilities possessing exceptional but ultra-specific skills. Much later, the 1988 film-drama Rain Main with its portrayal of real-life American ‘mega-savant’ Kim Peek, played by actor Dustin Hoffman, similarly highlighted Peek’s stunning feats of memory whilst also exposing some of the neglect and severe isolation experienced by many with autism and related conditions. In altogether milder form, TV’s Doc Martin, as played by actor Martin Clunes, exhibits eccentricities and social inhibitions also common to ASD.

Theory of Mind

Though savants share autistic traits, they are by no means representative of the majority of those with autistic spectrum disorder. The defining feature of this group of ASD conditions is a crippling social withdrawal which Baron-Cohen1 et al. consider stems from the fundamental lack of a Theory of Mind. According to Eysenck & Flanagan2, this critical faculty is an essential prerequisite for the ability to recognise that ‘others’ thoughts and emotions … are different from one’s own’, and is also the mechanism used to ‘make predictions of how others will behave’. Describing the impact of such impairment on autistic children, Wellman3 concludes it ‘robs them of the ability to understand others’ feelings, desires, and beliefs. As a result, people can seem like any other object …’

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