During the making of Are You Autistic, a new documentary from Channel 4, 750,000 people completed an online survey to assess how many might unknowingly be on the autistic spectrum.
And the results were pretty surprising.
Of those who completed the survey, 87,000 had results indicating that they could well be autistic – a figure that equates to more than one in ten of the participants.
That’s a huge number.
More than half of them were women, which is astounding when you consider the generally accepted male to female diagnosis rates for autism.
Figures vary widely across studies but, in 2015, the National Autistic Society was providing support to autistic adults at a rate of three males to every one female.
Whichever way the gender cookie crumbles, it’s clear that autism almost certainly affects more people than we ever thought.
‘Are You Autistic’ is presented by trainee human rights lawyer Georgia Harper and artist Sam Ahern, both of whom are personable, intelligent – and autistic.
It’s refreshing, not to mention unusual, to see a programme about Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) being presented by ‘actually autistic’ people (if you search Twitter for the #actuallyautistic hashtag you’ll find loads of us chatting away – it’s a brilliant resource).
The lead presenter is Anna Richardson, who is personable and unobtrusive and lets the main characters speak for themselves.
We follow musician and rapper JP Horsley, formerly of R&B group Big Brovaz, and mum of three Jo Hoskins as they go through the assessment process to find out whether they, too, might be autistic.
Learning how to help and support his son, who is autistic and non-verbal, has made JP question whether he too may be on the spectrum.
I asked him what made him suspect he may be autistic himself and whether taking part in the programme had been a positive experience.
‘I went to kindergarten in America, and it wasn’t until I started that I saw the vast difference between myself and other children in my class.
‘I couldn’t get comfortable or make friends, and it caused me great anxiety when I tried to speak in school.
‘The kindergarten teachers didn’t know much about autism in the early 80s, but they’d often point out to my parents that I was ‘in my own world’ a lot of the time and ‘not participating with the rest of the children’.
‘I’d hear people speaking about my lack of interaction, but I wasn’t in a position to explain my anxieties.
‘My eldest son, Richard-Michael, was diagnosed as autistic at two years old.
‘While going through the diagnosis process with him, I knew I had the same symptoms that the specialists were pointing out to us as autistic traits.
‘I didn’t know how to go about getting diagnosed as an adult, so it was truly a blessing when Channel 4 had asked me to participate in this documentary.
‘Even then, I wasn’t sure if autism or my autistic traits were still detectable in me at 38 years old. So, for me, it was more about spreading autism awareness to the general public.
‘And, I suppose, from a personal standpoint, I wanted to prove a ‘genetic link’ and show the similarities between my son and I.
‘My son and I have always had a brilliant relationship built on love and understanding.
‘I’ve always been able to get through to him and communicate even though he is still non verbal at ten years old.
‘I’ve always been extremely observant of him, so I know what he likes and dislikes. We are literally two peas in a pod.
‘The assessment process has helped me understand myself a lot more and the reasons why I structure my life and relationships in such a rigid, and sometimes uncompromising, manner.
‘I think of myself as a perfectionist, and I don’t cut corners with anything.
‘I still have anxieties when outside of my comfort zones, but I like to challenge myself and prove that I can do anything I set my mind to.
‘I have never felt as comfortable in my own skin as I do now.’
Jo, meanwhile, says she has always felt ‘different’ and wants to discover whether autism may be at the root of why she struggles to fit in.
‘It was only through my own research that I recognised some of the symptoms [of autism] in myself.
‘My son, James was diagnosed when he was eight and, until then, I didn’t really know anything about it.
‘I started going to support groups and spent ages on the internet trying to find out as much as possible.
‘The more I read, the more I thought it sounded like me. It had never crossed my mind that James and I might have the same condition, partly because I mistakenly thought that autism was a ‘male’ thing.
‘When I was about 20, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
‘I had recently started a really good job in a bank, but it was with a large team of women and I just couldn’t fit in.
‘They tried hard to include me in conversations, but I felt so uncomfortable and my work began to suffer.
‘When James was born, I was also diagnosed with postnatal depression.
‘I took medication, as was recommended, but hated it so came off them after a couple of months.
‘Then, around two years ago, I went back to the GP to talk about my anxiety and was prescribed more medication and was recommended to give yoga and mindfulness a try.
‘I hated the side effects of the pills so quickly gave them up, but did have a go at more complimentary therapies.
‘I actually enjoy them now because it makes me have some quiet time for myself.
‘[going through the assessment process] did help me, certainly in terms of understanding the scientific reasons why I do some of things I do and why have difficulties with certain things.
‘It also made me realise that not all go my behaviours are negative. I’m always on time, I always give an honest opinion and I’m a very loyal friend.’
‘It’s allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin and has given me the confidence to be honest about when things are tough for me.’
Throughout the programme we hear from autistic people about how ASC affects them and what impact it has on how they are perceived by others.
What is noticeable throughout is just how hidden autism can be, especially in women.
A group of women hold a speed dating event with men who don’t know anything about them and who are visibly taken aback when they discover afterwards that all may not be as it seems.
While autism awareness is growing, opportunities for autistic people to spread knowledge about it themselves are still rare.
‘Are You Autistic’ is a significant, and positive, step forward.
‘Are You Autistic’ airs at 10pm Wednesday 28 March on Channel 4
Violet Fenn is a freelance writer and blogger. She can be found at Sex, Death, Rock’n’Roll