Article - Issue 26, March 2006

Responses to ‘Autism and engineers: Is there a connection?’

Professor Peter G Fookes FREng

Download the article (57 KB)

I write in reference to your article ‘Autism and engineers: Is there a connection?’, Ingenia 25, as the grandfather of a severely autistic grandson. The article covers the whole spectrum of autism, most creditably emphasising the need for understanding autistic children and adults, and is most supportive of The National Autistic Society (NAS). It claims that there are many kinds of appropriate work for those with certain types of autism. In this I am strongly supportive of the article.

However, I believe the emphasis of the article is towards gifted and able autistic people, leaving the reader more or less unaware of how many autistic children and adults need constant support and attention throughout their lives. The opening two sentences of the article, which are repeated in large font as a highlighted quote, states, “The main symptoms of autism, generally known as autism spectrum condition or ASC, are a poor (or late) development of language skills, and difficulty in communication or social relationships. This is often accompanied by highly developed visual or mathematical aptitudes, some to the point of genius.” I have italicised the words “often accompanied.” I believe this is too strong a statement.

My knowledge of the autism spectrum is that of a lay person and principally comes from reading NAS publications, many discussions with my daughter, and observing my grandson. The National Autistic Society estimates that in the UK there are over half a million people with autistic spectrum disorders. Of these, some 118,000 have an IQ of under 70, with almost all requiring a high level of support throughout their lives. The balance of some 417,000 have an IQ of 70 or over. Most of these will become semi or fully independent adults but with need of special understanding and help as children.

My grandson belongs to the first group, known as ‘low functioning autism’, and also to a sub-group of those with Self-Injurious Behaviour (SIB). His bedroom has been specially padded as a consequence of his daily head banging. He cannot communicate (we have no idea of what he thinks), has to be fed and dressed, and requires constant one-to-one attention. He is now approaching adulthood and my daughter (his mother) has spent and continues to spend most of her life looking after her son, not only physically but also in endless battles with local authorities, schools and other institutions, many seemingly having little understanding of how severe the downside of autism can be. I emphasise this to redress the balance of your article. I understand there are a large number of autistic people who need daily, round the clock, very close attention. How many autistic geniuses are there?

The problem that I believe exists, is that your article, like many other articles and television programmes before it, concentrates more or less exclusively on autistic children and adults with highly developed or developable skills. It has been brought home hard to me on numerous occasions, in discussing autism with friends or trying to help with charitable work associated with autism, that many people are surprised, some even express disbelief, when they hear a description of my grandson. A not uncommon view expressed of autism is that parents should consider themselves almost lucky to be bestowed with such ‘genius’ in the family, and that supporting charitable works would be quite inappropriate because they have been so lucky. The film Rainman is usually quoted, as well the latest media coverage on autistic genius.

I feel that this regrettable attitude is not alleviated by articles such as the one you have printed. Not that I am against such articles – indeed, I am strongly in favour of them to foster scientific development and understanding – but when such articles and television programmes are for lay people I believe a much stronger effort must be made to get the full spectrum of autism into perspective.

I love my grandson, though he cannot know it, and my daughter of whom I am immensely proud – no mother could devote more love, time and dogged perseverance in finding the right environment and attention for her child. The special school at which my grandson spends five weeks out of seven gives him the best care that they can.

Professor Peter G Fookes FREng

The National Autistic Society welcomes your article ‘Autism and Engineers: Is there a connection?’ The article had a positive perspective but as the leading charity representing autism in the UK we are bound to observe that autism constitutes a wide spectrum of conditions. Only a relatively small proportion of people with autism, even of those of average or above average IQ, will have the highly developed abilities in mathematics reported in your article. It should also be noted that individuals with ‘savant’ abilities only represent 1% of the population who have autism.

Awareness of autism has increased over the past decade, but autistic individuals and their families invariably face a never-ending battle for recognition and access to the services they need. This may include specialist education or care but also includes employment. People with autism are often highly motivated to work with excellent work related skills, but their social and communication difficulties, coupled with a lack of understanding of their condition, means they continually fail to find jobs commensurate with their abilities.

The NAS estimates that in the UK there are over 300,000 people with autism of working age. Only 12% are in full time paid employment compared to 49% of people with other disabilities and 81% of the nondisabled population. The NAS employment consultancy, Prospects, provides a model for how a specialist employment service can work. Prospects successfully supports over 300 people around the UK in a range of full time jobs – but this is a tiny minority of those who require our help.

We welcome continuing research into this most complex condition, but would caution against an overly narrow focus on individuals who display ‘savant’ abilities.

Richard Mills
Director of Research
The National Autistic Society

[Top of the page]