The point remains, the nature of the inequalities and prejudices disabled people face are different today than they were 30 years ago, and 30 years before that. But impairments too have a history. Short-sightedness wasn't much of a problem for the overwhelming mass of humanity in agrarian societies. It became an issue with the advent of mass literacy, but has been mitigated by technologies developed to overcome them - spectacles, eye surgery, etc. Impairments are therefore shaped, positioned, tweaked and coded by wider social forces. As physical and mental incapacities they have existed for as long as there's been humans knocking about - but what they mean and their consequences for someone with them vary according to the kind of society they live in, and its level of development.
This in mind, allow me to venture a hypothesis. I'm no mental/cognitive health specialist. What I know about the autistic spectrum and Asperger's Syndrome is very little. It's a complex area that is still being unravelled. But that isn't going to stop me advancing a touch of speculation on the main sociological question these two conditions raise. That is why have Autism and Asperger's only recently been codified as a social concern? It could part be media curiosity, part the growth and spread of the internet, and part visibility attained by the disabled rights movement. The inescapable trope of the autistic genius might have a role, too.
But I think something deeper could be going on, something to do with structural shifts in the advanced capitalist countries. Short-sightedness and Dyslexia were not social concerns prior to industrial capitalism. The point came when the demands of capital required something more than able bodies to work in its dark, satanic mills - it needed basic education to record and pass on information at all levels. Since then, particularly over the last 30 years, manufacturing has taken a battering. The old industries have fallen back and in its place are what we used to call tertiary industry: the service sector. This sector, from retail to investment banking, from call centres to consultancies, all absolutely depend on social relationships. Of course, thus it ever was. But now is different - the direction of travel clearly is capitalism's growing dependence on the wealth that can be mined from relationships. Hence the massive values of social media firms who've yet to make a single penny of profit. Hence the obligatory 'person spec' placed alongside graduate job adverts. Hence the growth of consultancies selling team-building experiences and organisational engineering. Hence the concern with Autism and Asperger's.
For Autistic and Asperger's people, the economic shift to service finds them singled out as disabled individuals. In front of the new emphasis on relationships, on the complexity of social cues and the (personal and commercial) premiums on networks; they are the newly dis-abled. And this is a very recent shift. Just 20 years ago when I was still at school, I can think of two boys who today would be diagnosed as autistic and with Asperger's. But back then, they were merely written off respectively as naughty and slow, and dim and simple. Their symptoms existed, but they had not been specially codified by the powers that be. Now, they would.
Therefore, could it be the case that the coincidence of capitalism's shift-to-service and the codification of Autism and Asperger's to a disability of social concern has deeper roots?
There is an alternative explanation, but again related to changes in political economy. We know Britain is in the midst of a mental health epidemic. One-in-four of us suffer with a mental health problem during the course of a year. Thankfully, the stigma attached to mental health is beginning to lift and it is starting to be talked about. Partly, this is because these problems are so widespread. Why should we be surprised that more insecure and pressured work situations lead to stress, anxiety and illness? That low wages, crushing debts and attacks on social security screw people up? It is reasonable to assume that more job security, more stability would have the effect of decreasing incidences of mental ill-health. But also, with capital's emphasis on relationship and service, any health problems impacting on its capacity to do business on that basis is bad news. It's a concern. A social problem. So, is it possible that the relatively recent problematisation of Autism and Asperger's is a subset of a wider recognition of a crisis around mental health?