Autism – No Need For A Cure?by Jennifer Gibson, PharmD | February 23, 2009
The prevalence of autism has increased nearly 1000% in the United States over the last 15 years. Now, as many as 1 in 150 children may be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. We now include people who would have been previously diagnosed with mental retardation, as well as people who were merely labeled “eccentric,” on the autism spectrum. Research into the causes, treatments, and cures of autism is extensive, and covers the entire scientific continuum. Supporters, advocates, and opponents of autism rights, likewise, run the gamut from those who think autism needs to be cured, to those who think that autism is simply a different way of functioning and needs no treatment at all.
The neurodiversity movement is not new, though it is gaining in strength and numbers around the world. Its supporters, often parents of autistic children as well as adults with autism, believe that autism is not an illness or disease, but merely an atypical way of functioning. They contend that society must embrace this different way of thinking and functioning, just as we accept diversity in culture, religion, sexual orientation, and personality. The supporters of the neurodiversity movement argue that people with autism are not incapable of learning certain skills or participating in social interactions. These abilities must simply be learned and practiced in a different way. Autism, these activists contend, is simply an alternative way of being.
According to recent research, people with autism who accept the neurodiversity platform have more self-esteem, and have more academic and career ambition that those who see autism as a medical condition with its array of disadvantages. In one study, students with autism who held the latter view more often applied for special assistance and monetary allowance through disabled students programs. Not surprisingly, most neurodiversity advocates with autism are high functioning, with little to no significant intellectual impairment.
There is fierce disagreement among autism rights activists, of which neurodiversity supporters are one-third of the argument. Another set of activists insists that toxins, mostly vaccines, cause autism and these poisons and pollutants should be removed from the environment to cure autism. There is a third group of activists who believe autism is a genetic characteristic and should be cured by concentrating on genome research. Each group believes the other is either redefining autism or trivializing a serious disease, depending on which side of the debate they support. However, the one thing they share is a desire for people with autism to have a happy and fulfilling life. How they get there is another story.
Many neurodiversity supporters are against almost any treatment, and generally do not support many of the drug therapies used in children with autism. While many parents are willing to try any medical treatment, even experimental ones, to treat their children with autism, some neurodiversity advocates do not even support behavioral therapies for autism. The only neurodiverse option is to accept the autistic person for who they are, differences and all. However, are these advocates willing to give up the protection of autism spectrum disorders under the United States Americans with Disabilities Act? They want children with autism to feel special and unique, but what if they need special education classes? How do they explain the vast differences between mild social impairment and severe disability that fall under a single “autism” label? Some neurodiversity proponents seem to want to have it both ways: autism as a disability when it suits them, and autism as a socially acceptable norm the rest of the time.
We, undoubtedly, live in a diverse society: diverse in thought, action, and principles. We have made great strides to accept all types of people as a part of our collective standard. But, where does the acceptance end? Where is the line between “just a little bit different” and a diagnosis of a medical illness? Autism research will continue, and the associated debate will rage on, but it is unlikely that any one cause or any one cure will be found for the extensive spectrum of autism disorders.
Brigitte Chamak (2008). Autism and social movements: French parents’ associations and international autistic individuals’ organisations Sociology of Health & Illness, 30 (1), 76-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.01053.x
Edward Griffin, David Pollak (2009). Student experiences of neurodiversity in higher education: insights from the BRAINHE project Dyslexia, 15 (1), 23-41 DOI: 10.1002/dys.383
Solomon A. The Autism Rights Movement. New York Magazine. 2008.
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