A Dash of Autism

In Jami L. Anderson Simon Cushing (ed.), The Philosophy of Autism. Rowman & Littlefield (2013)
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In this chapter, I describe my “post-diagnosis” experiences as the parent of an autistic child, those years in which I tried, but failed, to make sense of the overwhelming and often nonsensical information I received about autism. I argue that immediately after being given an autism diagnosis, parents are pressured into making what amounts to a life-long commitment to a therapy program that (they are told) will not only dramatically change their child, but their family’s financial situation and even their entire mode of existence. Moreover, despite information overload, many treatment programs for autism rely on empty jargon and make completely unrealistic promises, so parents are left feeling overwhelmed and panicked. Even well respected therapy programs encourage parents to spend liberally. Indeed, autistic therapists, who help construct what I refer to as the Culture of Autism, advise parents to commit to a minimum of 35 to 45 hours of intensive therapy every week. The implications are clear: for a parent who works full-time, their autistic child becomes a second full-time job. Autism is big business right now, and therapists are pushing parents to the brink of desperation. So it is not too surprising that there is a desperate cry for a more permanent solution—which is why researchers seek to cure autism. But there are two ways to conceptualize cure. A Therapeutic Cure model (TC) conceives of a cure as a beneficial treatment for the patient that eliminates or ameliorates the harms of the disease or condition. But the notion of a therapeutic cure for autism is highly implausible, given the complexities of autism. Indeed, at this point, the vast majority of researchers have come to the conclusion that the idea of a therapeutic cure for autism is simply a non-starter. Therefore the bulk of research seeking a cure for autism focuses instead on a second approach, which I refer to as the Negative Eugenics Cure model (NEC). With this model, the intention is to eliminate the disease or condition without regard for the health or well-being of the organism carrying the disease or condition. So, with regard to autism, researchers are focusing on identifying genetic markers for autism that can be detected in utero, or in embryos, so that autistic fetuses can be eliminated and autism eradicated by preventing the existence of autistic individuals. I review both models and argue that both fail to provide convincing arguments that the “solution” either offers is desirable. Both rest on the assumption that autism renders a life not worth living which, all things considered, is false. Instead of pushing to cure autism, an idea pervasive in this Culture of Autism, I contend that autistics are individuals with lives worth living. Moreover, rather than expend millions on research to search for the means to eliminate autism, we should instead expend our resources to ensure autistic individuals have access to support they may need. If the phenomenology of autism were better understood and appreciated, the panicked demand for a cure for autism might abate and perhaps autism could be seen as having value in and of its own right.
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