Friday, January 23, 2015

Curing Autism: Kindness or Judgment?

This blog entry is one that I've wanted to write for a very long time, I've just been a bit hesitant to do so. In fact, so deep has my debate over writing this entry been, its taken me several months to organize it into some semblance of an article in my head. Before I get into it though, I'd like to state as I have before that the content of this blog is my opinion alone. I recognize that neuordiversity and autism awareness are murky waters, filled with many diverse opinions on what exactly is the best way to provide love and support for those on the spectrum. We are all, after all, deeply concerned about aspies and autistics getting the fairest and best treatment possible.

That being said, the topic I'd like to talk about today is an important one for anyone living with aspergers, autism or any other pervasive developmental condition:

The cure.

Wait, what's that you say? There is no cure to being on the spectrum? That may well be true, but it is equally true that science is consistently researching the potential existence of one. There are many out there in autism awareness circles who, led by misguided yet good intentions and the media, are concerned with finding a cure for autism. Now first off let me be clear; I recognize that that there are many challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum. Ranging from mild to severe, problems with socialization and communication tend to be present in almost everyone with a diagnosis. Treatment for these is good and should be pursued; it can assist in bringing someone out of their shell and finding their voice and confidence. Many times, to those who are parents and caregivers of autistics, good-natured love makes them want to secure a better future for their children. This kind of love should be cherished and celebrated. We should, however, be selective in which kinds of treatment we seek out, as some can be downright damaging to autistics. The idea of curing autism and aspergers in particular is misguided at best and potentially destructive at worst.

As a civilization, our concept of medicine here in the west is very mechanical. Problem arises, expert analyzes and diagnoses, and medicine is assigned to remove it. The truth is, in terms of approach and philosophy, the way I treat my asthma is not all that different from how I fix my computer on those occasions when Windows decides Windows. There is nothing in theory wrong with this; through this lens, we have cured a great many diseases and made much progress in terms of extending lifespans and increasing quality of life. We need to remember, however, that not everything is so clear cut. Autism is, after all, considered to be a pervasive developmental condition. By its very nature, it is so completely intertwined with who someone is, that fully removing it would completely change the person at a fundamental level. More concerning, a cure would raise a difficult question; if autism's presence gives a person a unique personality type, then by seeking a cure are we not making the case that certain personality types which do not fit with social standards should be eliminated?

Perhaps the most concerning contributor to this pathologizing of personality types is the anti-vaccination movement. Specifically, I'm concerned with their misguided assertion that vaccines cause autism. While I recognize that it is good to be aware of the ingredients and side effects of anything one decides to put in themselves or others, and that this claim is born from a place of love, there are certain facts which must be contended with. Not only has the vaccine-autism link been thoroughly debunked in hundreds of independent studies, but the claim itself is extremely damaging as it further fuels the fire behind the idea that there is somehow something very wrong with someone on the autism spectrum. There is, in fact, far more evidence to support the idea that autism and aspergers arise from a combination of genetic and epigenetic factors rather than from vaccines. As long as people believe anything to the contrary and cling to the idea that vaccines are bad, then not only will we continue to see the resurgence of diseases exterminated long ago, but we may actually see an increasing desire to exterminate what in my opinion is a natural variation of the wiring of the human brain.

In short, my message to all neurodiverse people and their supporters is the same as its always been; love yourself and be proud of who you are! There is nothing wrong with any of you; in fact, many of the brightest individuals in human history had something about them that set them apart. What, for example, someone had never given Beethoven a chance due to his degenerating sense of hearing? What if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (two men who, in my opinion, were aspies without even realizing it) had been put in a box and considered defective instead of having been allowed to kick start the computer revolution? History is filled with examples such as these, but at the end of the day, no one has the right to decide for another what their potential is and to prune traits from them deemed to be “undesirable.” To do so is to ignore everyone's – aspie, autistic, neurotypical – fundamental rights as human beings.

After all, to thine own self be I right?

Yours in diversity

Adam Michael