Scientists Reconsider Autism

Posted on February 29, 2008  Comments (3)

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Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know

This movement is being fueled by a small but growing cadre of neuropsychological researchers who are taking a fresh look at the nature of autism itself. The condition, they say, shouldn’t be thought of as a disease to be eradicated. It may be that the autistic brain is not defective but simply different — an example of the variety of human development. These researchers assert that the focus on finding a cure for autism — the disease model — has kept science from asking fundamental questions about how autistic brains function.

A cornerstone of this new approach — call it the difference model — is that past research about autistic intelligence is flawed, perhaps catastrophically so, because the instruments used to measure intelligence are bogus. “If Amanda Baggs had walked into my clinic five years ago,” says Massachusetts General Hospital neuroscientist Thomas Zeffiro, one of the leading proponents of the difference model, “I would have said she was a low-functioning autistic with significant cognitive impairment. And I would have been totally wrong.”

And that hurts autistic people, Dawson says. She makes a comparison with blindness. Of course blind people have a disability and need special accommodation. But you wouldn’t give a blind person a test heavily dependent on vision and interpret their poor score as an accurate measure of intelligence. Mottron is unequivocal: Because of recent research, especially the Raven paper, it’s clearer than ever that so-called low-functioning people like Amanda Baggs are more intelligent than once presumed.The Dawson paper was hardly conclusive, but it generated buzz among scientists and the media. Mottron’s team is now collaborating with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Zeffiro, a neuroimaging expert, to dig deeper.

I must admit I am a ignorant on much of this topic. But this provides some interesting details. Maybe I am outdated, or politically incorrect, but if someone is not able to care for themselves why would that not be a deficiency not just a difference? Isn’t taking care of ourselves fairly important? If my vision is say 20-80 instead of 20-20 that is a deficiency.

I am not sure how much I should trust some physician if they claim a person is just different, not disabled, when they seem to have pretty obvious disabilities. That does mean disabilities define people. But it is hard for me to understand how to learn if we insist on not acknowledging what seem as pretty obvious factors of the situation to me. It makes me worry other factors will be ignored for political correctness, or other reasons.

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3 Responses to “Scientists Reconsider Autism”

  1. No Name Provided
    March 2nd, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    This is pretty interesting to me. I’m in grad school pursuing a degree in speech and language pathology, and I am going to post this article in my class. I think it will stir up some good discussion, hopefully on both sides of the issue.

  2. Colin
    March 14th, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

    In fact they don’t say that autism is not a disability – they say it is not a disease. Diseases are something people are suffering from and want to get cured. Most autistics say they don’t suffer from autism and as autism is an inherent part of their personality they don’t want any “cure”, because “curing” autism would mean to destroy their personality. The first Autistic Pride Day was celebrated using the motto “acceptance not cure”.

    A disability, on the other hand, only becomes a disability in a certain social (or cultural) context. Our society is structured in ways that accommodate “normal” people and exclude others. Think of a person using a wheelchair coming up against some stairs.
    Autistics might be taken for “cognitively impaired” when they don’t speak, like Amanda Baggs who is mentioned in the article. Amanda Baggs writes articles on university level. Autistics often have difficulties finding a job not because they are not able to do the job but because everybody expects you to do the job in a certain way, and to chat with people, etc.

    Apart from the fact that there are also autistics who “care for themselves” – what does it mean to care for yourself in a world where each of us depends on others? None of us is Robinson Crusoe living on a desert island. In fact there are scientists who believe that the crucial strength of humans is their diversity – compared to other species all humans are disabled and weak, and only by organizing themselves in a highly complex system of reciprocal dependencies they survive.

    By the way, did you know that nobel prize winner Vernon Smith is autistic, as well as Richard Borcherds, winner of the Fields Medal? Just to make the point a bit clearer – I don’t intend to say that autistics would have to be successful in any way to be accepted the way they are.

    You might excuse my English as it is not my first language.

  3. CuriousCat: Autism and the MMR vaccine
    August 20th, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Back into the hornets nest is a thoughtful follow-up post on the decision of a scientist to vaccinate his child…

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