news focus: Widespread media coverage of autism has coincided with some substantial funding for the education of autistic children and medical research into the condition. Barry Hugill reports on a new-found optimism

Published: 13/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5809 Page 12

It is Friday afternoon and a halfterm party is in full swing at Rosemary School in Islington, north London. By the number of St George flags and T-shirts on view it looks like a jubilee celebration. But it doesn't really matter what the occasion is, the teenage kids are happy and secure.

Many of the youngsters are autistic. They have a condition which makes it difficult for them to relate to other people.

Autistic children have problems with language, some will never speak; they find it difficult to look people in the eye, they sometimes have an unusual posture with flapping limbs, head bowed.

And, as every parent with an autistic child knows, they are prone to tantrums and socially immature and difficult behaviour such as screaming in public, biting or kicking, grabbing goods off counters in shops, making naive and embarrassing remarks.

As the party ends and the students make their farewells, headteacher Jim Wolger asks: 'Could you spot the autistic kids?'

The school caters for a range of pupils with communication and learning problems, and not all are autistic. According to the textbooks, the autistic ones ought to be sitting quietly in a corner. But they are taking part in the festivities, and Mr Wolger beams with pride.

He is smiling because his pupils are benefiting from the intensely structured teaching programme he oversees, and because he has just been designated head of a new,£13m purpose-built school which will be created by merging Rosemary with another school.

Autism was first recognised as a medical condition in 1943 and until a pioneering twin study by Michael Rutter in the early 1970s it was associated with epilepsy and brain damage. Rutter pointed to a genetic link and that is now the prevailing medical orthodoxy.

It would be unfair to say the disease has been totally neglected, but until recently it was hardly regarded as a priority by government or the medical and educational establishments. Now, however, autism is firmly on the political agenda and muchneeded cash is coming its way.

Mr Wolger, with his new school, is an obvious beneficiary, as is Dr Anthony Bailey, consultant clinical psychiatrist at London's Maudsley Hospital. An anonymous donor has paid for a new chair at Oxford, and Dr Bailey takes up the professorship later this year. His brief is daunting:

'My task is to identify the causes of autism and then find a cure.'

Dr Bailey is certain that the new spate of interest in autism is related to the controversy over the measles mumps rubella vaccination.He says there is absolutely no evidence linking the MMR jab with autism and regrets the fall in take-up rates, but he is honest enough to accept that the publicity has put 'autism on the map'.

He is optimistic that at least one of the autistic genes (there are probably up to four) will be identified within two years and then work can begin on identifying the environmental trigger that results in the disease.

He says that finding the gene does not constitute a cure and the condition will remain incurable for some time.

But much can be done to help sufferers, which is where Mr Wolger comes into the picture.

He began his adult life as a Franciscan friar before joining the Metropolitan Police, rising to be an inspector in the Heathrow 'abortion squad'.

'We used to track foreign girls coming into the country for an abortion to make sure the operation they had paid for was at a legitimate establishment, ' he explains.

After a spell as a security guard at Butlins, he hit on teaching as his vocation and has been a specialneeds specialist for many years.

Mr Wolger speaks positively of the inter-relationship between doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and teachers in Islington, but accepts that there has been a lack of co-ordination in the past.

He also accepts that most autistic children are forced to 'fit in' to the mainstream schooling system without any adequate provision.

The new school, still unnamed, is due to be operational by 2005 and will provide a joined-up service for autistic children from birth to adulthood. It will have an extended day and open at weekends and holidays. Teachers and health workers will work side by side.

Working with Mr Wolger on the school's advisory board is Virginia Bovell, whose eight-year-old son Danny is autistic.Ms Bovell was a founder of the pressure group Parents' Autism Campaign for Education. A recent PACE survey found that of 500 families affected by autism, only one was receiving tripartite funding (health, education and social services). Most parents felt that they were shuttled back and forth between different agencies with needless bureaucracy and time delays.

Last month a National Autistic Society report claimed that autism is more prevalent than previously thought, with one in 86 children showing symptoms.

Yet specialist provision doesn't keep pace. There are 3,000 places available providing specialist teaching, and at least 76,000 autistic children of school age.

Not all need full-time specialist provision, but many do.Ms Bovell estimates that 26,000 children cannot cope in mainstream schools, and it doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that most might have to.

The picture is depressing, but Mr Wolger is hopeful. His school will become a training centre for teachers across north London so that those in mainstream schools will have a better idea of how to cope with autistic children.

And, if Dr Bailey's optimism is well founded and the gene is cracked, that will generate more publicity and public and government awareness of the scale of the problem.

Meanwhile, Mr Wolger plans to run the New York marathon to raise even more money for his new school. l