The Guardian view on autism awareness: recognising diverse talents – and needs | Editorial

Growing diagnosis of the condition needs to be matched by increasing acceptance and support

“You’re underwater and you are responsible for 100 people, and a nuclear reactor, and you’re operating in an environment that is fundamentally hard,” Britain’s second sea lord said recently, discussing his former role as a commander of a nuclear submarine. “If you make a mistake, you will sink and you will die, and everybody else will … the focus and the ability to deliver on the complexity of that operation is something that I was naturally comfortable and reasonably good at.”

Nick Hines was explaining why he believes his autism made him a better naval officer. The neurological condition affects social interaction, but manifests in strikingly varied and complex ways in each individual. Some require full-time support and care. Others regard it as a difference rather than a disability, pointing to their skills and abilities, from deep focus and resilience to peer pressure. In his recent book, The Pattern Seekers, Simon Baron-Cohen – an influential though controversial expert on autism – argues that people with “hyper-systemising minds” that focus on precision, details and systems have driven the development of civilisation, and that there has been significant overlap between innovators and autistic people. Ignoring those with the condition squanders talent and risks the groupthink that comes from hiring people whose minds work the same way.

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