Wednesday, March 19, 2008


There is an article in March issue of Wired, which is available for reading on their website, about a young woman who has autism. She recorded a video, described the world in which she lives, types 120 words per minute (blows me out of the water), and hangs out in Second Life with others like her. She says that just because she has autism, it doesn't mean she's trapped in her own world and that she's no better or worse than us.

About three paragraphs in, I expressed doubts to the veracity of the video and claims; suspecting aid from a caretaker. The article addresses a variety of scientists who also had similar doubts.

The front cover of the magazine has, just above the logo, "The Truth About Autism: Everything You Know Is Wrong." Well, no. Everything I know is not wrong. And aside from the epistemological argument that if it's wrong, you can't possibly know it, I found the title rather absurd.

Autism and autism spectrum disorders are a pattern of behavior. That's it. We can't find anything wrong physically with most patients, and when we do find abnormalities, they're frequently in different parts of the brain. The amount we know about autism is surprisingly small.

I think this is the weakness of the article and the argument that autism is different, not deficient. They make that final point at the end of the article, finally hearing from scientists who say the difference model is even more inaccurate than the arguable inaccurate deficiency model. If we all lived in the wild, and something about you would make you sit there until you died, that means something is wrong with you. If you can't go to the bathroom yourself, eat, or go outside by yourself, something is wrong with you. If communication with the whole of your species is difficult to impossible, something is wrong with you.

I think the aspect of this research that is critically important that was totally overlooked in the article and, in general, in the literature is that autism is likely, in my opinion, not a disorder. It is a whole bunch of disorders. The focus of the article, Amanda Baggs, who recorded the video, is high-functioning. She's obviously intelligent, cna write, communicate, and angrily blog about misperceptions about autistics.

That's great! But what if she doesn't have autism? There are many illnesses that have cold-like symptoms, we don't call all of them colds. I suspect that like many mental illnesses, autism isn't one thing. I more than doubt, I feel highly confident that illnesses like schizophrenia are a family of illnesses. It's just that we understand so little about the functioning of the brain that the best we can do is come up with crude names to describe behavioral patterns. Schizophrenia, schizotypal, schizoid.

Autism spectrum disorder. Spectrum? Spectrum? Could you imagine that sort of nomenclature attached to colds. Instead of influenza, we had cold spectrum illnesses. We don't know anything about this! Instead of focusing on "curing" or "accepting" autism, we should instead be focusing on using autism-like behavior as another window into the workings of the brain as a whole, in hopes of one day getting a grip on its functioning.

The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know (Wired Magazine)

No comments: