There are thought to be 700,000 people in the UK with Asperger’s Syndrome or other forms of autism, a statistic that really shocked me.
Because I meet a lot of people in my job, and I wasn’t aware of ever having met any – until wildlife presenter Chris Packham came into the Loose Women studio this week to talk about how he copes with the condition.
And I discovered that one of the reasons it’s such a closed book to the rest of us is that people like Chris, who have Asperger’s, often do all they can to avoid the rest of humanity – because we make their lives a living hell.
The Really Wild Show star, who wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 40s, told us that his teenage years were torture and by the time he was 20 his “world was black”.
By the time he got to university he had decided that to protect himself from the trauma of dealing with other people he would lock himself in his room and only leave to go to lectures.
Chris admitted: “My teens were so bad that I thought about killing myself. The level of depression and isolation I felt was unbearable.
“For nearly a year, the only thing I said was ‘20 pence please’ twice a day to the bus conductor.”
Even now, after a stellar TV career, Chris’s symptoms of Asperger’s are there to see, once you know what they are.
It’s defined by the National Autistic Society as a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
And though he was baring his soul on telly, he struggled to make eye contact, and clung on to his beloved poodle Scratchy, who he brought with him, as if he was a canine comfort blanket.
But while it might be painful, Chris feels he can’t duck the debate.
“I have a small voice because of the work I’ve done on TV,” he told us, “so I have a duty to use that voice to make things better for other people.”
Asperger’s is the saddest of conditions, because the people who have it are often desperately lonely, but when they reach out their lack of social skills can drive others away.
And they have so much to offer, if only we’d listen.
As Chris pointed out, there are many useful positives to having Asperger’s.
Like him, people with this condition often have astonishing memories. He still has total recall of facts he read when he was six years old.
They also have an amazing ability to spot patterns and make connections – a real boon in science, medicine and computing.
“It shouldn’t be those with Asperger’s that need to change,” Chris pleads. “People just need to be more understanding.”
And we can all make a difference, one by one. Because you don’t need to read someone’s medical notes to realise they’re in trouble.
If we think about it, we all know people who struggle to connect – from that quiet kid in our child’s class who never gets a playdate to that awkward chap at work who can’t handle the banter.
What it boils down to really is less judgement and more kindness. A small price to pay to rescue someone in pain.
To every weary new mum who’s ever stumbled out of a maternity unit in pyjama bottoms and her gardening fleece, the Duchess of Cambridge is a goddess.
All right, the hair and make-up were bought and paid for, perks of the job.
But that 100-watt smile, those high heels, the way she glowed with love as she beamed at her man, rather than looking like she wanted to strangle for him for his part in putting her through eight hours of agony. It’s a near impossible act to follow.
Start rehearsals now, Meghan. That bar’s been set awfully high.
ALFIE’S LIFE WAS FULL OF LOVE
As a mum, I understand why the parents of little Alfie Evans would have done anything to extend the life of their son.
It’s a basic biological instinct to fight to the last to save your child.
But when all the arguments – medical and moral – were stripped away, what was left was one very poorly boy, two devoted parents clinging to hope and a dedicated team of NHS professionals desperate to do the best for their patient
Many of the doctors and nurses at Alder Hey Hospital are mums and dads too, and cared for Alfie for most of his short life.
They wanted to do everything they could for him.
But they had the hardest job of all – balancing the harsh realities of Alfie’s devastating condition with the medical ethics they’d pledged to uphold. And doing it in the face of his family’s distress.
It’s so sad that the raw emotion attached to this heartbreaking case erupted into abuse aimed at NHS staff.
I always believed that Alfie’s parents Tom Evans and Kate James should have had the final say in his treatment because no one else knew him better or cared more deeply about his best interests.
And now Alfie’s tragically short life is over, at least they will always know it was full of love.
HANDSHAKE FULL OF HOPE
It’s the handshake that might just save the world.
Kim Jong-un’s short trip across the border dividing North and South Korea was a journey from hatred into hope.
As he grasped the hand of South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, it was as if the Doomsday Clock had gone into reverse.
It was a small step. A lot could go wrong. But it’s a move in the right direction.
And it might just encourage other world leaders who are toe-to-toe with their neighbours to see the bigger picture.
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