by Dinah KC Murray (2012)
The importance of conserving diversity is widely recognised in the 21st century; it applies to humans too.
There is a growing tendency to describe autism as a disease of plague-like dimensions, often further characterised as being “at one extreme” a “seriously handicapping condition” and contrasted with “the other extreme” of autism where many people discern an elite of geniuses.
Vast amounts of public research funds are devoted to the genetics of autism. Leading researchers in this field like to emphasise the extreme differences in the ‘autistic spectrum’ in terms of a radical split between the brilliant and the duds whose genes should, they imply, be snipped from the human genome. Yet according to Mottron et al (2006) “There are no available convincing data that autism with versus without overt peaks of ability, with versus without overt speech, or overall autism versus Asperger syndrome, differs at a genetic level.” Even if there were such data, the potential to remove a variation from the human range is highly concerning on both ecological and ethical grounds.
Expectant parents with a high possibility of having a so-called ‘low functioning’ autistic child are increasingly likely to receive genetic counseling and the opportunity of termination. Doctors at University College Hospital in London are offering what is being called ‘the King Herod solution’ for cases in which autism “has inflicted severe suffering on the family”: they are suggesting screening for male embryos because there is a greater likelihood of autism in males. But since autism is defined relative to cultural norms and expectations, society is necessarily the other side of the equation. Autism exists as a dysfunction only in relation to society. In short, autism is not a disease, it is a socially problematic difference. That autism is not a disease is borne out in the many research findings that show ‘enhanced perceptual functioning’ in autism (see Mottron et al, 2006).
The rate of change and the variety of processing demands in daily life have risen steeply in the last century (Economist, 1999). In the UK jobs that require a degree of social versatility have increased their share of the labour market from about one third in 1841 to three quarters in 2001 (Murray, 2006). These changes are particularly challenging for autistic people. More typical humans do not currently have much time for this atypical way of being human. Autistic man Freestone Wilson suggested in the 1990s that autistic people are functioning as the “miners’ canaries” of civilisation. When the air in the mine is poisoned we do not prevent canaries being born in case they suffer from the poison and upset us: we clean the air or close the mine.
We believe it is abusive and should be recognised as abusive to deny autistic people personhood, to say that their way of being is diseased, to sympathise with their murder, or to imply that without them the human race would be better off. This sort of language – which has become commonplace in discussions about autism – would be recognised as inflammatory and illegal if applied to an ethnic group or sexual inclination. It must be rigorously, legally disallowed in all areas, especially ‘genetic counselling’. In practice these discriminatory attitudes underpin both the argument for the extinction of supposed ‘low functioning autism’ and the disturbing trend for parents who kill their autistic children to be seen as unfortunate victims of their child’s condition.
We assert that humanity is as enriched by autistic people as by anyone else. If we dehumanise other people we dehumanise ourselves as well as them.
For more about these issues please take a look at Autism Demonized and
and Natural Variation – Autism Blog: Prenatal Genetic Testing: Wrong and Misguided
and follow the links there.