Review – Autism: A Very Short Introduction

Autism: A Very Short Introduction – Uta Frith

A Very Short Introduction to Autism

The “Very Short Introduction” series aims to provide an accesible starting text to a variety of different topics. This is the one on autism. The author, Uta Frith, is a developmental psychologist who has worked in the field of autism for many years.

It is an interesting book to read. Frith is very blunt in places in talking about autism, and some autistic people may not like the tone she takes in this book. She approaches autism more from the medical model view than the social model view, and some readers might find this makes the book unreadable for them.

A lot of information is covered in this book, from diagnosis through a whirlwind history of autism, what might explain the increases in diagnosis, and focusing on the different psychological theories behind autism. Some of what she says might be construed as quite controversial – especially when she touches on the fact that autism may be becoming increasingly misdiagnosed due to society’s preoccupation with social competence. She talks about this area in a bit more depth in her documentary ‘Living with Autism’ that is available on BBC iplayer for April 2016.

There may now sometimes be pressure for a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, where in previous times no-one would have worried. In past times, these children would have been treasured for their high abilities, and their social awkwardness would have been excused. In today’s culture, social abilities are arguably more vital to success than ever before, and therefore treasured more highly than ever before.

The best part of this book is undoubtably the section on the different psychological theories. She covers the five biggest theories in discussing autism: Theory of Mind, Lack of Social Drive, The Human Mirror System, Weak Central Coherence, and Executive Dysfunction.She discusses the strengths and limitations of these theories in considering autism, and how they might explain different aspects of autism in some people but not in others. She also describes some of the studies that have been carried out to look into these different theories, and what they found. Frith discusses how these theories relate to each of the three areas in the Triad of Impairments – and where they fail to provide explanations.

Give Frith’s background, it makes sense that the psychological theories is the strongest part of the book, but is does mean that other areas of the book are somewhat underwhelming. Her opinions in the book can also be quite abrasive, and it is interesting to see how she has moved a bit away from the medical model approach in this book compared to her opinions in the afore-linked documentary which are much more balanced.

Obviously, not being influenced by overall context can be a great strength. Sometimes, the work weak in Weak Central Coherence is misunderstood as meaning ‘poor’. In fact, most of the tests of WCC are geared to show good of superior performance.

Is it worth reading?

For those studying to work in the field of autism, yes. The psychological theories section is pretty strong as an introduction to those theories. For families or autistic people I would say it’s not especially useful.

Is it value for money?

RRP is £7.99, and you get a reasonable amount of information for that price. Even better, most places seem to be selling it new for £4.99 or less and at those prices yes it is good value for money.

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