In recent years, we have seen a prevailing belief that there are more Autistic individuals in Australia than ever before. This assumption is fuelled by a number of factors including increased awareness, changes in diagnostic criteria and evolving societal attitudes toward neurodiversity.

But truth is, autism is not new – far from it.

One of the earliest well-documented cases of autism is that of Scotsman, Hugh Blair of Borgue (1708-1765) who was known for “many eccentricities.” Modern writers have speculated that records of Hugh Blair might be consistent with a medical model, modern diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

In 1766, natural philosopher Henry Cavendish was described as ‘peculiarly shy’ by contemporaries with eccentric behaviours. While researching Cavendish in 2001, neurologist Oliver Sacks determined that evidence for an autism diagnosis was almost overwhelming.

And there are many additional and fascinating historic cases, where individuals who would now be diagnosed as Autistic may have been overlooked or mis-labelled with other conditions. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that autism began to be defined in the current way we do.

So, what’s changed?

Diagnostic criteria

The diagnostic criteria for autism have undergone significant changes over the years. As our understanding has deepened, diagnostic guidelines have been revised to encompass a broader range of behaviours and characteristics. This expansion has led to more accurate identification and diagnosis of autism, resulting in a perceived increase in prevalence.  Whilst there is a loud debate about the diagnostic process, it is a significant advancement that there is any debate at all.

Increased awareness

Advocacy efforts have played a pivotal role in bringing autistic life to the forefront of public consciousness. With campaigns promoting acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity, more individuals are seeking assessment and diagnosis for themselves or their loved ones. This heightened awareness does not indicate a surge in autism cases but rather a greater willingness to acknowledge and address existing neurodevelopmental differences.

Research and Services

Deeper research and improvements in medical technology have facilitated earlier detection, diagnosis and intervention. Improved awareness and screening tools enable healthcare professionals and educators’ to identify signs of autism in children at a younger age, allowing for timely support and intervention services. Early intervention has been shown to significantly improve outcomes for individuals.

Increased availability and accessibility of support services, including therapies and specialist education, has also been a positive encouragement for people to seek a diagnosis.

The creation of a social model, of which there are many academics, advocates and autistic legends to thank for this, has also opened up new realms of looking beyond the medical model alone.

Societal shifts

While there is still work to do, we have seen societal shifts in recent years regarding neurodiversity. As awareness grows, stigmas diminish and supports become more prevalent, helping more individuals to feel comfortable disclosing their neurodivergent identities. This increased visibility does not signify a sudden surge in autism prevalence but rather a greater acceptance and celebration of neurodiversity within society.

Each day I dedicate to empowering neuro-divergent individuals and I am thankful not to have been born in the era of poor Hugh Blair! While we’ve made huge steps in awareness, diagnosis and understanding of autism, I still witness many cases where individuals displaying similar traits to him are bullied, ridiculed and isolated.

The next advancement, I believe will happen in a systemic and societal shift towards altering the neurotypical model and the prevailing paradigm we all live and operate in.  With further education, training and understanding of what being neurodivergent means and increasing appreciation of Autistic individuals, I know we will see a community that values and respects the unique strengths and differences of neurodiverse people.



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