In January of 2007, after years of spreading the notion that vaccines cause autism, David Kirby publicly retracted his stance in his article, published on the Huffington Post, “There Is No Autism Epidemic.” This was supposed to be the final word on the debate between those who believe autism to be vaccine-induced and tragic, and those who believe it to be genetic and healthy, and is still widely cited as some sort of “reasonable compromise” between the two camps.
The essence of this quasi-compromise that there are two radically different and rarely overlapping types of autism—the first is what might be called “heritable Asperger autism,” which is present from birth but causes no significant impairments, and what Kirby calls “Environmentally-acquired Neuroimmune Disorder,” which causes digestive and other physical problems along with severe cognitive impairments. These conditions, according to this view, have no link to one another and no connection except a medical mistake in classifying the two radically different conditions together.
Kirby isn’t alone. The notion that what is called “high-functioning autism” and what is called “low-functioning autism” are two radically different conditions has become a core assumption of those who seek “compromise” within the “autism community” (or, at least, the parents-of-autistic-children community). Is this true?
Well… there are some problems. First of all, it’s based on a false dichotomy. Autism isn’t a binary condition, nor is it really a “spectrum” condition. It’s a syndrome, which is to say that all autistic-diagnosed people have at least a few of a list of traits, to one extent or another. Some autistic persons are completely mute, and some are astoundingly well-spoken. There are autistic persons with IQ scores that classify them as geniuses, and there are autistic persons whose IQ scores classify them as severely intellectually impaired. There are autistic persons capable of managing large corporations. There are autistic persons who cannot communicate well enough to hold a job of any kind. And none of these factors are connected to one another. “Severity” (if it can be called that) of autism is not a spectrum, but a series of points on at least a dozen independent axes.
Furthermore, the points on these axes are not stable throughout one’s lifetime. A nonverbal child can grow to be an eloquent adult. Kirby says that his “END” children “may never learn to read, write, tie their shoes or fall in love.” It’s certainly true that they may meet this fate—any child may, indeed, any child may die tomorrow—he clearly means to imply that this fate is likely. Extrapolating adult ability from a child’s ability is dangerously irresponsible in the case of any child, but particularly so with a child whose condition, by its nature, leads to asynchronous development. And the other traits he mentions, traits so often linked to the “bad kind” of autism? Sensory seeking, corporophagia, and self-injury? These traits appear in highly verbal and highly intelligent (not synonymous, either) autistic persons as well, particularly in children. The fact is, it is impossible to discern with any accuracy a child’s future adult skill level.
This theory also assumes that doctors are completely incompetent. What competent professional would be truly unable to differentiate between groups of people with such radically different conditions? The autism diagnostic criteria is broad, perhaps too broad, but not so broad as to encompass the disparity required for the validity of this theory. It is reasonable, thus, to conclude that if this “END” exists, it must be very similar in presentation, perhaps indistinguishable, from classic autism.
So it’s factually shaky, but as I’ve stated previously, I consider the social impact on non-hypothetical autistic persons to be more important in the assessment of an idea relating to us than its strict scientific accuracy. And the social impact of this dichotomy is less benign than it might otherwise appear. Grouping autistic persons into strict binary categories of hypercompetent and incompetent denies the nuances of strength and weakness that make us human. Validating the acceptance-worthiness of autistics with exceptional “intellectual and educational achievements,” while casting all others into the slot of undesirables, sets an unjustly high standard that is not applied to non-autistic persons. Non-autistic persons are not required to demonstrate any particular educational or intellectual achievements to be considered worthy of a presumption of basic competence. (To be sure, neurotypical children are also judged far too harshly by their academic performance, but a neurotypical child who struggles academically may be [perhaps unjustly] deemed incapable of going to college, not incapable of falling in love, which is a very odd thing to include as a skill.)
More fundamentally, however, this “compromise” position misses the point of what the fight is about. It may work, I suppose, if one believes that the fight is about whether autism is genetic or environmentally-induced. But, although most autism-acceptance advocates come down on the “genetic” side, that isn’t the core of our disagreement with the establishment. The core of our disagreement is whether autism is basically a good thing or basically a bad thing. Whether it is beneficial to society or harmful to society to have members with autistic traits. Those outside the movement take it on such unquestioning faith that autistic traits are undesirable—that it’s somehow a scientific truth that autistic traits are undesirable—that they miss the point of what we’re arguing, which applies regardless of whether autism is innate or induced.
I knew a young man with diagnoses of cerebral palsy and autism. He had no family history of autistic traits, and his autistic traits were believed to be caused by his acquired disability rather than by his genetics. Yet, while he sought treatments and would have hoped for cures for his physical impairments, he identified as an anti-cure autistic. Although his autistic traits were the result of an induced disability, he considered them an intrinsic part of his personality, and an asset rather than a liability. Proposals of “compromise” based on the premise that autistic persons should be accepted in spite of their autistic traits (which they can’t help, after all) or that only those autistic persons who have, through their own talent or through years of behavior modification, managed to suppress their natural autistic traits are worthy of acceptance miss this point altogether. I don’t want to be accepted in spite of the way my mind processes information, nor do I want to be accepted solely because I have managed to learn to stifle, at least in public, much of the outward expression of the way my mind processes information. I want the way my mind processes information to be as equally valid to that of a non-autistic person, and a necessary and valuable form of human diversity. Unfortunately, the Overton window doesn’t extend that far yet, and this position doesn’t merit inclusion into the formation of “compromise.”
(Note: This was originally a comment on a Facebook post of Kirby’s article, but it was much too long, so I tweaked it a bit, tacked on an introductory paragraph, and stuck it here.)