Friday, January 30, 2009

autism isn't harmful?

I wonder if most persons who have an autistic child or in fact a number of persons with autism themselves who might, for various reasons, not be inclined or be able to write about autism on the internet would regard autism as not being harmful. I also wonder whether autism researchers, such as my friend Matthew Belmonte, who has a brother who has never spoken would regard autism as harmless. Apparently, Laurent Mottron, Morton Gernsbacher and Michelle Dawson (her again)question the premise that autism is harmful. In the article I just linked to, they question this premise based on a variety of cognitive tests that research subjects in their lab and other labs have received. They seem to think that because the persons with autism whom they and various other researchers have tested have a superior score on the block design and other types of tests somehow shows that autism is not a harmful disability.

One of the reasons I have linked to this article is because I was having a dialogue with one of my favorite individuals in the ND movement, someone who calls herself "alyric". As part of the dialogue I had noted that Michelle Dawson and her colleagues had pointed out in a journal article they did not believe autism was harmful. Alyric expressed disbelief and challenged me to produce documentation of the article, which I promptly did. Alyric claims that she is a big fan of Michelle's, so I am absolutely shocked that Alyric would be so ignorant of the published work that her idol and those she collaborates with have produced. I am equally shocked that Michelle Dawson would claim to have such great respect for this person who is unaware of her publications, but I suppose that is neither here nor there.

The article goes on to imply that Nicholas Tessla, who was celibate, had autism. It gives a quote from Tessla questioning how many inventions came from married men. Interestingly enough,Thomas Edison one of the most prolific inventors of all time was married. So perhaps Mottron, et. al. should not be implying that Tessla was autistic or even that his autistic celibacy was a gift resulting in the ability to invent.

It then ends with an autistic woman stealing Larry Arnold's well-known metaphor about the one-eyed man being king in the country of the blind. The authors imply that autism would not be harmful if society changed.

I must respectfully disagree. I believe my autism that has impaired my ability to make a living, caused fine motor and perceptual problems (incidentally, I am one of those rare autistics who does poorly on the block design test), inability to have friendships and romantic relationships, causes me to self-stimulate throughout the day and not get things done (except some posts on this blog with a bit of effort), my phobias are harmful. Harold Doherty I am sure, regards the problems of his son Connor harmful. Josh Greenfield has written about his severely autistic son in a few books and how harmful he thought the boy's constant screaming, tantrums, inability to talk or take care of himself was. I wonder if the mother of Ashley Brock (the little girl whose autism caused her to drown because she was too impaired to be aware of the danger water posed for her) would regard autism as harmless. I really don't think so. I must respectfully disagree with Dr. Mottron and his two co-authors. It would be nice if society could be more accepting, I agree, but that is only a small part of the problem. Contrary to what those in the ND movement believe about me, I am not opposed to human rights for persons with disabilities. However, societal acceptance and the lack of rights (alleged or otherwise) do not constitute a lot of the problems that persons with autism have.

I wonder if those persons at autism speaks who review grant proposals for research have read Dr. Mottron's piece. Since they provide funding to his laboratory, I can either conclude that they have not read the above article that I have linked to or they are asleep at the switch, indeed incompetent in regards to whom they decide to fund. I suspect there are many parents who try to raise money for autism speaks, through walks, solicitations of donations from their friends, etc. who would disagree with Dr. Mottron's view that autism is not harmful. I wonder how they would feel about this man receiving funding with their money. In their case, I suspect many of these parents have never read Dr. Mottron's treatise and never will. I wonder how the powers that be at autism speaks can explain themselves to these good people who have so much frustration over their child's disability. These people I suspect long for a cure, or at least a way that the behaviors and problems that their children have can be mitigated in order to not be harmful. I wonder what these people would think of Dr. Mottron's essay.


SM69 said...

I am slightly confused about the meaning of the word harmful in your post- but looking at the paper you linked to I read that the meaning is employed with an evolutionary connotation. Harmful meaning a”lowered fitness (reduced fertility rate)”.

Other meanings of harmful reported in the papers are “disability and debilitating”, “cause human suffering”, “disastrous to survival. Comparisons are made to schizophrenia, bipolar, OCD, depression etc. All within an evolutionary context. And amongst all disabilities, autism is viewed as a “glaring exception” to the “awesome power of natural selection”.

What these people are talking about is evolution and the question raised is why autistic traits could be maintained and appeared to be naturally selected, given today’s current rate. (Of course, they do not see that the number is not necessarily an indication of successful natural selection but rather evidence of environmental factors at play). None the less their argument is based on the knowledge that autism comes also with some adaptive benefits linked to higher intelligence in some area, as some studies have shown.

Your personal experience might refute these benefits, but the argument is of an evolutionarily nature, about natural selection of a trait across a population. The issues that are considered are meant to apply to the population of interest and not necessarily to all individuals. Though of course the main criticism one would have to these studies, is to do with the selected sample population and to which extent the findings apply to the rest of the spectrum.

I presume I am not making myself too clear either- but to put it more bluntly, this is not about individuals, but about a population. In any case, do you have the rest of the paper?

jonathan said...

That was entire paper. Actually you are not quite right. The authors were only quoting from another paper that mentioned evolution and then they twisted it around to show that autism was not a bad thing just because of some scores on cognitive tests that had been applied to a few laboratory subjects.

As far as natural selection is concerned, those (like maybe yourself) who imply that autism has stayed within the population because of adaptive traits are forgetting about spontaneous mutations that could cause autism to stay within the population. Not to mention the fact that there is some research (though I have not read the papers first hand) that states that autism seems more probable in older fathers who don't have the same DNA as younger ones and are more likely to produce an offspring with a genetic mutation such as autism.

Anonymous said...


If autism is caused mostly by spontaneous mutations or by damaged DNA from older fathers, then why does autism affect boys to girls in a 4:1 ratio? Wouldn't male and female DNA be equally affected by spontaneous mutations?

Anonymous said...

Thanks J, I realized that these attributes to the word harmful were given by different authors, but what I meant is that of course it is in this evolutionary sense that the word was used by everyone from the paper. Therefore, it is in this context that you need to also approach this meaning. If you criticize a paper on one aspect, you cannot change what that aspect really mean, because if you do, well, you are talking about something else, not the paper. A central aspect to evolution and natural section is random mutations, so I did not forget what this is all about, right. What they argue is that with random mutations occurring randomly and leading to autistic traits and the condition, there are some evolutionary (i.e. not harmful) benefits to this, which explain its selection over time. What they explain is that it is likely to be higher intelligence in certain areas. It’s the first time I see a paper with references not listed, and with no closure to argument. I don’t think it is full. I did not say what I thought, I explained what they were talking about.

What I think is that the recent trend increase of autism rate is not related to selection and evolutionary advantage but to environmental factors influencing gene expression, development and behaviors, all feeding onto a common pathway, but ending in different phenotypes, based on the unique genetic-environmental individualities of affected people. What I think is that to the exception of a few HFA/AS, there will be no transmission to progeny, because there will be no “mating”. In that sense, if I use the evolutionary meaning of the authors, autism as seen in the last 2 decades is for many individuals harmful; it is not transmitted through sexual and natural selection.

jonathan said...

Hi Redtape: Not necessarily because the problem is females have an extra X chromosome and many of the causes of autism are X-linked rather than being due to autosomal (nonsex chromosomes). Though, no one really knows for sure why there is a 4:1 male: female ratio in autism and other developmental disabilities such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia and Stuttering, it is very possible that at least a factor is the fact that females have that extra X chromosome which gives them protection from X-linked genetic conditions.

John Best said...

Boys become autistic at a higher rate than girls because testosterone makes mercury more potent while estrogen weakens it.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for being a voice of reason to counter the neurodiversity nonsense.