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  4. Autism and learning disability over time: an early-life history approach

Autism and learning disability over time: an early-life history approach

Andrew Lovell

This paper reports on a research study examining the impact of the diagnosis of autism on the lives of two individuals with learning disabilities. The study employs a case study framework, data having been collected from multiple sources, primarily interviews with parents and significant others, combined with documentary analysis of clinical case note material, professional reports and letters of personal correspondence. The subsequent chronological case records were translated into studies through accumulation of a mass of data, some of which contrasted sharply with other sources of evidence. Two case studies are discussed, the first relating to the early life history of a young boy growing to maturity during the two decades after 1960, whilst the second examines the contrasting experience of a young boy growing up over a similar period following 1980. The data is analysed through investigation of the consequences of the individual's relationship with both autism and learning disability, and the stories are told within the context of change and the condition's re-conceptualization as autistic spectrum disorder.

The case studies reveal some of the individual and family consequences of an association with autism during this historical period. The first study is framed by the dominant institutional approach to care of people with learning disabilities and how this was complicated by extended negotiations around admission and the promises of a diagnosis of autism. The second study is set within the emerging philosophy of community care and examines the re-emergence of autism as a clinical entity. The difficulties posed to services within each of the two eras are presented through the prism of the two early life stories; issues of professional self-interest and rivalry, the problematic nature of caring for people with complex needs, the effects on both the individual and family are all played out. In sum, many of the important questions around the relationship between autism, learning disability and society are raised through concentration on the early lives of these two individuals.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

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