From Autism to Asperger's Syndrome: Disentangling the Genetics and Sociology of the Autism Spectrum

Progress Educational Trust
Palace of Westminster, London SW1A 0AA
20 October 2009

This evening debate at the Houses of Parliament was organised by the Progress Educational Trust (PET), and was supported by the Wellcome Trust and by Parliamentary sponsor Dr Evan Harris (then Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon). The event marked the launch of the PET project Spectrum of Opinion: Genes, and a synopsis of the proceedings forms part of the School Resource Pack created by PET as part of this project.

2009 saw media furore over the prospect of genetic testing for autism. Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in autism and its possible biological causes, warned that a future prenatal test for autism might (at best) threaten to eliminate talents associated with the autism spectrum from society and (at worst) constitute eugenics. Ensuing discussion revealed uncertainties, tensions and outright misconceptions in our understanding of autism. More than this, it demonstrated that divergent conceptions of autism, and divergent interpretations of the relationship between genetics and psychology, are promulgated by experts in different fields. How to disentangle the many aspects of autism, and address it coherently?

This public debate sought to clarify the genetic and non-genetic aspects of autism, with experts presenting the latest thinking on autism from a range of contrasting perspectives, and a particular focus on the concept of the 'spectrum' and the challenges it throws up. The upshot of the 'spectrum' concept as applied to autism has been that this diagnostic category now encompasses an enormous range of individuals, from those with 'classical' autism as conceived by Leo Kanner, to those with 'high-functioning' autism as conceived by Hans Asperger. Although Kanner and Asperger were contemporaries, it is only during the past two decades that the syndrome to which Asperger gave his name has enjoyed wide recognition and prominence.

    Partners and supporters

  • Dr Evan Harris

  • Wellcome Trust

Buy Autism and Asperger Syndrome by Simon Baron-Cohen from Amazon UK or Amazon USA, and buy Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion by Michael Fitzpatrick from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.