Page last updated at 06:05 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2004 07:05 UK

Experts challenge autism 'myths'

Mark Annis
Mark Annis says he was classed 'subnormal' at school

Imagine what your life would be like if every day was a struggle to communicate and interact with everyone around you.

That is the reality for many people with autism, a developmental disability affecting social skills.

An international conference organised by Autism Cymru in Cardiff from Monday to Wednesday aims to explode the "myths" and increase awareness.

Autistic spectrum disorders are estimated to affect 20,000 people across Wales.

As well as having problems with social relationships, people with autism often prefer sameness, and have difficulties accepting changes to their routines.

Many of the traits of autism are also shared by Asperger's syndrome, although people with this condition are often "high-functioning", appearing to function normally most of the time.

Mark Annis' work
Some of Annis' work is being shown in Cardiff City Hall

Their condition only becomes apparent to others when placed in stressful situations, when they become anxious and distressed.

Mark Annis, an artist with Asperger's syndrome who will exhibit some of his work at the event, said many people with autism faced very difficult childhoods, and were bullied at school because they were different and did not fit into peer groups.

Mr Annis, 42, from Penarth, near Cardiff, said this hostility never stopped, and people with autism stay as "outsiders" in adult society.

"People tend to see us as abrupt people - rude or downright offensive at times - it is quite frightening," he said.

He believed a general lack of understanding of the condition saw autistic people demonised.

"I recently told a woman I was Asperger's - she was very offensive, she said I should be in psychiatric hospital.

"I have been spat at in the street, the attitude is so negative.

I have friends who have Asperger's who have been traumatised by people's attitudes - one of them committed suicide. <
Mark Annis

"Especially if you are a man on your own - it is fed by the paranoia of the stranger in the street.

Improved understanding

He argues that many people with Asperger's "can't live in a society like this".

"They are saying "I can't get a partner, get a proper peer group, get a circle of friends, or go out without risking being rebuffed all the time."

"I have friends who have Asperger's who have been traumatised by people's attitudes - one of them committed suicide."

He was classed "educationally subnormal" when at school.

"When I left school, my mum advised me, 'Don't come out - don't admit you are disabled, as they will probably have the police around'. I was advised to keep quiet.

"Today, there is improved understanding among people who are educated about Asperger's.

Mark Annis' work
The 'high functioning' of people with Asperger's can cause problems

"But the other side - those who don't know - they are more hostile and more paranoid when they do find out.

"People with Asperger's are facing a really hard time to get the professions to explain to the general public, as well as the parents and guardians.

"There is still this perception, particularly in relation to parents and the professions, that people with Asperger's can't do much or are incapable of holding down a relationship, holding down a job or pursuing a talent or having a career.

"But we have so much to offer - it's a long process."

He believes people with autism should "try to be themselves".

"Not everything revolves around running businesses or being cool or trying to be life their peers - you have got to be an individual and develop your finer qualities, your talents and strengths.

But part of the problem for people with Asperger's syndrome is that they are high-functioning.

"At least if you are more severely autistic, people know and they don't take offence."

The conference will be held from Monday to Wednesday, 17 - 19 May, in Cardiff City Hall to coincide with Autism Awareness Week.

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