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Wednesday, 3 November, 1999, 08:33 GMT
Internet first for disabled
The internet has helped the disabled to communicate
The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched the world's first global disability conference held entirely on the internet.

Mr Blair launchedAutism 99 - a conference organised by the National Autistic Society (NAS) and funded by the Steve Shirley Foundation - on Tuesday.

It includes chat rooms where people can discuss issues of interest, new research papers on a variety of subjects and other material, including an exhibition, a series of audio interviews and a self help area where delegates can run their own workshop sessions after the main conference.

The NAS is also encouraging schools to take part and says people without computers at home can access the conference through libraries or cybercafes on

Mr Blair's backing for the project is in addition to that of the prime ministers of Australia and Singapore.

It comes after he attended a computer course last week and after Chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to widen access to the internet.

Mr Blair said: "I am delighted to be able to launch Autism99 - the first ever world-wide internet conference on a disability issue.

"Autism is a difficult problem and one we are only just beginning to really understand.

"The purpose of Autism99 is to give parents and families and also health and education professionals the opportunity to exchange information, to pool ideas and to get to know how different people, and indeed countries, are coping."

Communication problems

Jane Asher, president of the NAS, said: "For two weeks in November this fantastic initiative, which is a world's first, will give people from all walks of life a chance to learn about what autism is and is not - simply by clicking a mouse.

"As a keen web user myself I am delighted we are using this up-to-date way of exchanging information to help those who may themselves have difficulties with communication."

The site will remain online after the event and continue to provide relevant news and information.

According to the NAS, there are some 500,000 in the UK with some type of autism, ranging from the milder form, known as Asperger Syndrome to the more severe.

It is perhaps most well-known in connection with the film Rain Man in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant.

There are only a small number of autistic savants in the world and they are said to have a remarkable spatial and numeric abilities.

Some 40 million people in the world are autistic and, although it is thought to have been around for centuries, the numbers are said to be rising. This may, however, be because of better diagnosis.

Males are up to four times more likely to suffer from the condition than females. Possible causes are genetic, viral or metabolic, with triggers including German measles.

It is also linked to epilepsy and there may be an association between difficult labour and autism.

Controversially, a UK study has suggested a link between the mumps, measles and German measles vaccine and autism, but health experts say this has not been proven.


Autism is a lifelong learning disability associated with an inability to understand others' feelings and difficulty in the development of play and the imagination and communication problems.

For this reason, the NAS says the internet has been a particular boon.

"People with autism can have difficulty communicating with people face to face and maintaining eye contact," said an NAS spokesman.

"They also have difficulty understanding speech which might be less logical and less linear than written language."

One contributor to the conference, from the Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum, claimed: "The internet is for many high functioning autistics what sign language is for the deaf."

See also:

30 Jun 99 | Health
Immune link to autism
16 Sep 99 | Health
MMR: A needless dilemma?
07 Oct 99 | Health
Tuning in to genius
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