Over 500 people joined Humanists UK online on Monday evening, to hear psychologist Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen deliver Humanists UK’s prestigious annual Blackham Lecture. Chaired by Education Policy Researcher Dr Ruth Wareham, Pattern Seekers: a new theory of invention was the best attended event in the Blackham Lecture series to date.
Baron-Cohen first took aim at those characterising autism as a ‘disease’. While noting the support needs of autistic people, he placed great emphasis on instead viewing autism as a difference – describing one of the many equally valid ways that human brains operate. He noted that while there is a genetic component to autism (that it runs in families, and it is significantly more likely that a second child will be autistic if their older sibling is) there must be environmental factors at play too, citing evidence of discordant identical twins, where one child is autistic and the other not.
His lecture was a resounding call for awareness of and inclusion of neurodiversity in all walks of life. In it, he said:
No one type of brain is better or worse than another. They’re just simply different. And obviously, the concept of neurodiversity builds on other related concepts that we’re much more familiar with, like biodiversity – there’s no single way to be a plant or an animal – or ethnic diversity, or gender diversity. And indeed, an inclusive society embraces difference, and embraces diversity.
Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen
Turning to the main theme of his lecture, Baron-Cohen argued that one of the skills, strengths, and talents that autistic people often have is a greater aptitude for pattern recognition and understanding systems – ‘the basis of invention’. He noted that there are twice as many autistic people in Eindhoven (‘the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands’), as would otherwise be expected, and showed evidence that genetic alleles associated with autism overlap with those associated with skilful pattern recognition. ‘What we’re seeing, even in the genome itself, is evidence of diversity, and association with strengths and even talent.’
Reaching the end of his lecture, Baron-Cohen posed a question: ‘How is society treating autistic people?’ He continued, ‘What we know is that autistic people have high levels of poor mental health, anxiety, and depression. And, in some of our work, we found high rates of suicidality. This isn’t part of autism. This is a very clear sign that autistic people feel excluded from society. They feel unvalued’. He closed by arguing that ‘we need to have many more changes in society, whether it’s employment, in education or in wider society in terms of leisure and access to make sure that autistic people feel welcome, respected, and accepted’.
Following a rapid question-and-answer session, Dr Ruth Wareham presented Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen with the 2022 Blackham Lecturer Medal, for his significant contributions to the field of psychology, particularly to public understanding of neurodiversity, and its implications for all of us who want to realise an inclusive society where people’s differences and diverse talents are celebrated.
The Blackham Lecture explores an aspect of education, either philosophical, practical, or social, that relates to humanism. The Blackham medallist has made a significant contribution in one of these fields.
The lecture and medal are named for the educationist and activist Harold Blackham, first executive director of Humanists UK and first general secretary of Humanists International. It is held annually, in assocation with Birmingham Humanists.
The Blackham Lecture is just one of the events that make up the Humanists UK Annual Lecture series, which also comprises The Darwin Day Lecture, The Rosalind Franklin Lecture, The Voltaire Lecture, and the Holyoake Lecture.
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