Autism – just like sexuality, gender and pretty much any human phenomenon – is a grey entity
‘I’m definitely on the spectrum’, uttered Katie Hopkins in – arguably – her most candid interview to date.
She was on LBC radio, defending Tweets she had made about an autistic child on Channel 4’s Born Naughty?
Hopkins had described the program’s subject – nine-year-old Honey – as a ‘T***’. This, paired with the fact she had accused Ed Miliband of being autistic in the run up to elections, angered mums and dads – particularly those of children with special needs.
And then, Hopkins confessed her prejudice might not be so outward, revealing that she might too be autistic.
That’s no reason, of course, to try and out other people with the same condition – just as a gay man would not out another (unless you’re Perez Hilton).
However, she has raised an interesting point about autism: its defining features are far subtler than we think. Looking at Hopkins, with all her cockiness and – dare I say it – ability to engage, she and Honey seem worlds apart. But they could actually be far more similar than any of us realise.
In our society we tend to think of things as very black and white: you’re a man or woman; autistic or not; dyslexic or not; mentally ill or not. Yet, science constantly teaches us that humans are really quite a muddled species. The ‘spectrum’ has become a big word in psychology over the years because it teaches us that most traits are on a continuum.
One large part of human experience that supports this is sexuality. In recent years people have been far more open to the ‘greyness’ of attraction. This notion was largely advocated by sexologist Alfred Kinsey in the 70s, who found that people’s romantic experiences were far more fluid than previously thought. He devised a 6-point scale to describe how people can go from being exclusively hetero- or homo-sexual to more ambiguous in their preferences.
We need to be a bit like Kinsey when we look at every psychological phenomenon. That’s things like autism, psychopathy, anxiety and depression. There isn’t a ‘having it’ and ‘not having it’ – for most things we lie on a scale.
This was especially demonstrated in a Horizon documentary last year, Living with Autism. In the show Professor Uta Frith examines what it is that makes someone autistic.
Characteristics such as the need to control, obsessive interests in things, finding it difficult to empathise and an inability to cope with unusual situations are used as diagnostic criteria.
They are all inhibiting traits; and yet, very human.
At the end of her research, Frith asks Professor Simon-Cohen (one of the world’s most renowned autism experts) the elephant-in-the-room question: could we all be a bit autistic? Yes, he says.
What he points out is that we all have autistic behaviours and cognitions – it’s only when these traits are pertinent enough to reduce one’s quality of life that a doctor is likely to give someone a diagnosis.
You can see this parallel in disorders such as psychopathy, which is characterised by attributes such as low fear responses, the ability to turn on or turn off charm and desire for power. They’re totally natural features – it’s only when a person has them in droves that you have a problem. A psychopath.
It’s not just psychopathy and autism that are spectrum phenomenons – it’s mental health.
I sometimes get bothered by statistics around them that say things like ‘1 in 4 people are depressed’. It sounds like something so random; that only hits an unlucky few. But there are not ‘depressed people’ and ‘non-depressed people’. Everyone experiences sadness, guilt and anxiety – feelings that typify depression – it’s just that they happen to varying degrees.
And lastly there’s gender. Remember Mokgadi Caster Semenya – the South African middle-distance runner, who won gold at the women’s 800m in the 2009 World Championships? Many questioned what her gender was as she was masculine, with her macho voice and chiseled abs. But she was a woman.
We all know masculine women and we know feminine men. And then we know the in-betweens.
Gender is fluid; sexuality is fluid; state-of-mind is fluid. The jist of so much psychological research is: people are fluid.
That’s why when Katie Hopkins tells the world that that she’s ‘on the spectrum’, I won’t laugh. I don’t know if she is attention-seeking, but I thank her for bringing attention to the notion that the spectrum is far more big and welcoming than we all imagine. We’re not staring at it, we’re sitting right on it.