Disablism and autism

April was Autism Awareness Month in the USA. Its ending coincides with Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st. On this day we are invited to write on any subject, specific or general, personal, social or political, anything which states an objection to the differential treatment of disabled people.

So I thought I would write about the misrepresentation of autism in the media. There was  a lot of that last month. There were attempts to link autism to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. There were misleading press reports in the UK that ABA had doubled the IQ of autistic children. I could have selected any of the media coverage of an “autism epidemic” caused by exposure to environmental toxins, vaccines. Then there are all the articles which refer to autism as “this devastating disease.”

Instead I have chosen to focus on an article that does not contain a single mention of the words disease, epidemic, vaccines, mercury or cure. On the face of it this article is on our side. The take home message is that autism is a spectrum disorder with a massive range of abilities as well as disabilities. Instead of trying to cure them we can help autistic children by adapting our behaviour to meet their needs, especially their need to be able to reliably predict what is going to happen next. Quality education delivered by professionals who understand autism is the key to success. Multi-disciplinary diagnostic teams are necessary to make sure that autism is not missed or misdiagnosed as ADHD, OCD etc.

The problem is that it is easy to spot disablist thinking in the blatantly discriminatory articles. But the effect can be just as damaging in ostensibly sympathetic articles like this. Sometimes it can be more damaging because we are so relieved to read an article that appears to be on our side that we do not notice its implicit acceptance of many of the stereotypes that we are up against.

This is what I mean.

Last year, the department’s statistics showed 1,036 autism-afflicted students on file, said Susan Constable, director of the Autism Support Center for the department

Just as gay students are not afflicted with gayness, autistic students are not afflicted with autism. It is not something external to their lives. It is integral to who they are.

“Autism is no longer a low-incidence disorder in Rhode Island or nationally,” said Constable.

No longer? This suggests that, in line with the views of advocates of an autism epidemic, autism is on the increase. But the speaker falls into the trap of equating administrative incidence with actual incidence. The truth is that we do not know if autism has increased. We do know that about the time that US school districts were told to start recording autism the diagnostic criteria were broadened and trying to compare figures then and now is like trying to compare apples with oranges.

 Statistics indicate that more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined, according to the Autism Society of America. If diagnosis continues at this rate, the society estimates that autism could touch 4 million young people in the next decade.

The article states that the best treatment for autism is education.But it is the comparison with AIDS and cancer that will stay in the reader’s mind. The common cold is more common than AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. But nobody ever compares the incidence of the common cold to cancer. By doing so with autism you inevitably suggest that the two are comparable qualitatively as well as quantitatively. 

Many teachers know they’ve had little or no training, but will still need to reach children with autism, Constable said.

Reach children with autism? This reflects the idea that autistic children are somehow cut off or unreachable. We return to this alien affliction of autism that stands between us and the child. So what is this training for? To understand the child and reach out to them on their own terms or to tear down the barrier of autism and rescue the child within?

These are all comon sense errors. You accept the common sense assumptions that dominate society rather than subject them to critical analysis. But once you do this you can easily slip into factual errors.

“Regressive is the type of autistic child that we are seeing really increase,” Constable said. “We know that there is a definite genetic link to autism because we see families who have two or more children with autism, but the numbers are growing too fast for this to be just genetic. There are definitely some environmental contributions that play a part in it but there have been no conclusive studies as to what those areas are.”

The erroneous assumption that an increase in  recorded cases equates to an increase in actual cases is repeated. Genetic autism is taken to mean identifiable from birth and is counterposed to regressive autism which is assumed to have an environmental cause and therefore environmental insult must account for the increase in numbers. In fact there is no evidence that regressive autism has increased. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that regressive autism is triggered by an environmental insult. There are many late onset disorders that are probably genetic in origin. Alzheimers is probably the most dramatic illustration of this.

And this is the point. Adopting faulty premises leads to faulty conclusions and the acceptance of unproven hypotheses as facts. Even the most well intentioned people can end up repeating damaging ideas as facts if they lack a theoretical framework that alerts them to this possibility.

So how did we get here? It is simple. A loud and unrepresentative minority have been capturing media attention and helping to set the agenda. It is time for a loud and representative majority to restore the balance.

12 thoughts on “Disablism and autism

  1. “Even the most well intentioned people can end up repeating damaging ideas as facts if they lack a theoretical framework that alerts them to this possibility.”

    I wanted to highlight this sentence because it bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating—–time to get to to work to restore that balance. Thanks for the careful reading and revelation (however unconscious) of mispresentations of autism.

  2. And there’s the word “disorder,” which implies that something is out of order, not functioning correctly, needs to be put back in its proper place, and so forth.

    Good job deconstructing the subtle stereotyping that’s all around us.

  3. This is the kind of stuff I address in my presentation “From Fear and Fascination to Respect” that I’m giving at MIT next week. I’ll be sure to reference your work…good post, Mike.

  4. There’s so much about autism that is misrepresented in the media, I often find myself surprised by the things I read on blogs like this. Education’s a powerful tool, and it’s frightening to think that even an article like the one you linked to could have so many inaccuracies/misleading items.

  5. Has anyone seen this yet? (URL deleted)

    Healing Autism: A Breakthrough Approach with Kenneth Bock, M.D. explores some of the causes, controversies and treatments surrounding the autism epidemic. The film presents the heartbreaking challenges five families face, showcasing the successes they experienced after being introduced to Dr. Bock and a breakthrough biomedical healing program.

    We would love your thoughts.

  6. Ken,
    Do not spam my blog with your DAN quackery sales pitch. But seeing as I have your attention I would love your thoughts on fellow DAN doctor, Roy Kerry. You know, the guy who was given DAN credentials after killing Abubakar Tariq Nadama? Is he still a member of ACAM?Are you?

  7. Mike and others,

    Does anyone find it disturbing that we’re calling for a cure as if autism is some demon needing exorcised for the “real” person to come out? I’m still waiting to hear what it is that needs cured? I’d love to hear some sensible takes on this from parents of individuals with autism. We’re all for better education, effective medications, behaviors that are not self destructive. Would the world be better if the perspectives and things we have learned to attend to by individuals with autism be eradicated with a pill? Mike, you always give me food for fodder. I’m off to blog now about “What I wouldn’t know if there was no autism?” As always, thanks for some inspiration.

  8. Because there is an intense competition for funding, it would seem that the idea that “autism is on the increase” is more of a scare tactic to help raise the dollars. AIDS, breast cancer, diabetes — all require research funds, as well as many lesser known conditions. I believe the answers exist, but right now there seems to be more controversy than contributions. There will be a lot of Baby Boomers getting older and without children, who could greatly help out with a clause in their will to bequeath some funds to the study.

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