Maybe autism doesn’t need to be cured

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, recognized as among the world’s leading authorities on autism spectrum disorders, recently spoke out against the possibility of a pre-natal genetic test for autism, citing concerns that such information could be used to selectively abort autistic fetuses. Why is this? Is Baron-Cohen a strong pro-life advocate? If he is, he gave no such indication, pointing instead to the benefits of having autistic members of society.

At this point, many people are undoubtedly scratching their heads. According to conventional wisdom, autism is a debilitating lifelong disability that leaves the victim tragically unable to develop basic life skills, and in the popular consciousness it is loosely associated with mental retardation. What benefits could there possibly be to keeping autistics around? That autism comes with its own set of challenges is undeniable; many autistics have a difficult time navigating social nuances and have difficulty in interpersonal relationships. Autistics may also be affected by other problems, such as sensory integration disorders or epilepsy, which is much more common among autistics than in the general population.

However, the reality of autism is not all bad. Professor Baron-Cohen previously published a number of studies showing a strong relationship between autism and mathematical ability. Indeed, the prestigious Cambridge University, at which he teaches, allegedly has one of the highest rates of autism in the world. Other studies have shown autistics shine in spatial skills and pitch discrimination. A study from the University of Florida uncovered that high-functioning autistics were better than non-autistics at discriminating “false memories.” Keio University Medical School alleges that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have superior fluid intelligence, and therefore are better at abstract reasoning and pattern analysis. Even the hallmark deficit of autism – emotional detachment – may in some circumstances be advantageous. A recent study from Caltech found that autistics, less likely to be swayed by emotion, were better able than their non-autistic peers to make rational decisions. Autistic spectrum disorders are also known to be much more common among students in fields such as mathematics, engineering and computer science. Many common characteristics of autism, such as attention to detail, superior spatial skills, attentive memories and an almost-obsessive focus on a special interest, can serve to enable autistics to excel in various fields, most commonly technical fields such as engineering or computer science.

Nor is Baron-Cohen alone in his opposition to a pre-natal test for autism. The nearly unanimous opinion of researchers in the field is that autism has both its benefits and its drawbacks, and that the correct approach is to help autistics cope with their difficulties while cultivating their unique gifts. The continued drive to find a “cure” for autism is misguided at best and, in the words of Baron-Cohen, risks that we may “inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.”

January 21, 2009


Spencer Carran

Contributing Columnist

3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Maybe autism doesn’t need to be cured”

  1. Spencer Carran says:

    I hadn’t seen these comments until recently.

    Harold, I never denied that autism presents real and significant challenges. Sensory integration disorder, which seems ubiquitous among autistics, is quite unpleasant. But as you said, your son is “a great joy in your life.” Autistics should be valued as we are, and measures need to be taken to allow autistics to better integrate into the mainstream of society.

    Aaron, autistic supremacism is just stupid. Humans are social animals, the basis of cultural advance is the capacity for complex interpersonal relationships, and an inability to integrate socially is a completely unambiguous defect. Autistics are not the “next stage of human evolution” or anything like that, and claiming that it is betrays an extremely poor understanding of evolutionary theory.

    The point of this article wasn’t that autistics are better than “normal” people (if such can be said to exist) but that we have a right to exist. Whether or not you regard autism as a disability, eugenics is not an appropriate response to it.

    I will rephrase the first sentence of Aaron’s response to the more common “Nothing about us without us.” Decisions about autistics should never be made without the input of those of us who, being on the autistic spectrum, are better able than outside observers to tell what would actually help us.

  2. Aaron E. Hamilton says:

    If you’re not autistic, then you have no place saying what should or should not be done about people with ASD. What you call basic life skills are really just a big stupid game where people make friends and chat about the weather and don’t do anything useful with their lives. ASD “disorders” are, in my opinion, simple evolution. Focused interests, emotional detachment, enhanced cognitive reasoning, these are the future. We live and in an increasingly specialized society where social “skills” are no longer as important as they once were. WE are not disabled, YOU are. Our problem is not that there is anything wrong with us, but that you “normal” people who run the world cannot cope with our way of doing things. Stupid parents who complain and say “my child is disabled and so everyone should feel sorry for me” should just die already. You sicken me Harold. I am truly disgusted by your ignorance.

  3. Not to intrude on our “autism is beautiful” bubble but for many people with Autistic Disorder, including my son, Conor, soon to be 13, and a great joy in my life, autism remains a “debilitating lifelong disability that leaves the victim tragically unable to develop basic life skills”.

    I hope you are not unduly offended by my speaking the truth about the realities of autistic disorder that you don’t often hear from Professor Baron-Cohen and the “Joy of Autism” crowd.

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