This Scene Shares More Than Blue Genes.

Nick Kristof's column today on autism is a curious beast. While written like a typical, "let's quote the experts" policy wonk piece, it has a seriously disturbing assumption underpinning it:

Autism was first identified in 1943 in an obscure medical journal. Since then it has become a frighteningly common affliction, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting recently that autism disorders now affect almost 1 percent of children.

Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won’t be discussed much at Thursday’s White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The article cites “historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally.” It adds that the “likelihood is high” that many chemicals “have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders.”

The problem with this, of course, is that many of us on the autism spectrum do not consider ourselves "afflicted" with a disorder. Rather, we believe that we simply have differently wired brains which bring certain advantages and disadvantages. This is a less controversial assertion when made concerning Asperger's Syndrome, but as David Wolman explained in a great article in Wired a few years ago, many scientists now acknowledge that many "low-functioning" autists are not mentally retarded, as once thought. Indeed, they have specific cognitive advantages. Generalizing is always tricky, but potential benefits include better abstract reasoning, better memory, and greater focus -- the last of which is often pathologized as "obsessiveness," but which can be enormously helpful in some places. I doubt I'd be writing for TAPPED, for instance, without an obsessiveness about policy that Asperger's helped foster.

This is not to say that accommodations need not be made for autistic or Asperger's children. Necessarily, the social gap between them and neurotypical children is painful, and medical intervention is often required to allow kids on the spectrum to adapt. But calling for the elimination of autism, as Kristof effectively does, is reckless, not just because it treats current autists as victims beyond help but because it jeopardizes the potential gains to society that those on the autism spectrum can gain. As the autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin once quipped, "You would not want to get rid of all the autism genes because you wouldn't have any computers -- you wouldn't have any scientists."

Grandin was being glib, of course, but autistic mental traits are legitimately valuable, and Kristof's desire to eliminate them smacks of an ignorance unbecoming of someone in his position.

--Dylan Matthews

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