Recently, a friend tried to convince me of the validity of a new treatment for autism that, as many of these purported treatments do, lacks a plausible explanation for how it works. Nonetheless, I respect the friend and thus did my due diligence with a search of PubMed. Keywords from my friend’s description, together and independently, yielded one, and only one, result, a study of dubious validity from 2018 that was tangentially related. (And before you suggest that PubMed curates the studies that show up in its database, please allow me to point you to the 31,842 studies that show up for the keyword “acupuncture.”)
The point I want to underscore in this case, though, is not the lack of evidence, which was expected, but that the premise underlying this type of research is itself flawed.
Autism is not a disease. As such, you can’t treat it, any more than you can “treat” a person’s sexual orientation or left-handedness. You can treat, or at least teach coping mechanisms for, issues associated with autism, like anxiety, agoraphobia, and sensory sensitivity. However, there is no magic pill or other device that will make autistic people less or non-autistic. While research on the functional underpinnings of the brain is ongoing, researchers are coalescing around the idea that autistic brains function in unique ways, and that such functioning constitutes a difference, not an impairment.
In short, being autistic does not mean something is wrong with you that needs to be fixed. You do not lack functioning. You just function differently.
One of the obstacles to acceptance of this idea is that certain autism “experts” (who are not autistic themselves) still describe features of autism as deficits, such as “lacking” central coherence or “unable” to perceive unspoken information cues.
Such assumptions are entirely a matter of perspective. It is just as accurate to say that non-autistic people tend to overlook small details and that they are impaired in their ability to set aside social custom when necessary. Yes, an autistic person has to exert herself to hide her autism, but a non-autistic person would have to exert themselves at least as much to function autistically.
Considering that scientifically-backed means to help autistics manage their autism-related challenges already exist, such as chewelery (chew toys that grown-ups can wear), sound conditioners, and weighted blankets, I’m not even sure why anyone is still barking up this proverbial tree. Other than the hate-speech group A_____ S_____, the current consensus is that neurodivergence is just that–a divergence. Not a defect.
The lack of connection to medical reality in the procedure touted by my friend was troubling to me from a scientific perspective, and should at least be mentioned, if not harped on in my usual fashion. To whit: there are thousands of peer-reviewed studies by credentialed scientists exploring genes, electrical activity, and receptors related to the autistic brain. It seems unlikely that lay people messing around in this space would unearth something that the legion of scientists studying autism over the last fifty years did not, and I find it upsetting that such activity persists, not just for autism, but for many other conditions, as well.
Setting this soap box aside for time being, though, even couching autism as a disability is problematic. Some disability advocates argue that the term “disabled” has outlived its usefulness, in that it implies that certain traits suggest a lack of ability rather than a non-traditional mechanism for one. Until we can de-center “normal” as the standard against which everyone else is measured, though, disabled is all we’ve got, implications and all.
Whether or not we think of ourselves as disabled, it remains challenging for us to function in an environment designed by and for non-autistic people. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us.
We just see the world differently. If anything, that is an asset, not a flaw. And rather than “treating” it, we should celebrate it.