Understanding autism spectrum disorders

It’s time to abandon the idea of autism as a monolithic entity. So argued Professor Francesca Happé of the Institute of Psychiatry in her Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture given to a packed house at the Royal Society on 26 October, reports Christian Jarrett..

Professor Happé’s research has shown that the three strands of deficit associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) – communication difficulties, social impairments and rigidity/repetitive behaviours – don’t always appear together and have separate causes. Happé also emphasised that ASD shouldn’t be seen merely as problematic. People with ASD often have an eye for detail that can bring many advantages.

There is no miracle treatment for ASD, Happé explained, but education with care in special schools and units really works. She concluded that it was a mistake to think that understanding autism was simply about discovering its causes. ‘In order to make the world useful and accessible for people with autism, we have to understand how they see the world, not merely how their brains are configured or how their DNA looks,’ she said.

The Rosalind Franklin Award serves to promote women in science and recognises the work of an individual who has made an outstanding contribution. Professor Happé is a previous winner of the British Psychological Society’s own Spearman medal.

You will soon be able to watch Professor Happé’s lecture online. And a full report on her talk will appear in the December issue of The Psychologist - the Society's monthly magazine.