An anti-vaxxer in my local Autism parent FB group posted about the latest CDC stats (suggesting an increase in childhood ASD diagnosis over previous years, up to perhaps 1 in 59, or thereabouts) . She describes it as a public health emergency, basically trying to rally an Angry-Mom revolution to force the government to take the Autism “epidemic” seriously.
On the surface, I agree that more research is necessary. We still have a lot to learn about Autism, biologically speaking, and we have a looooong way to go in terms of changing the social and systemic paradigms that make it harder for people on the Spectrum to navigate their lives.
I have a problem with words like “emergency” and “epidemic”, though. For one thing, they portray these rising statistics as an Autism outbreak—something happening more frequently—rather than a product of how we count. Our awareness of Autism is increasing, we’re looking for it more closely and more broadly, thus we’re finding it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t always there.
My kid, for example. Extremely verbal, academically above-average, restricted interests (video games & spongebob, at the time) mainstream enough to be shrugged off as normal, absence of obvious stimming behaviors (at the time). It took almost eight years to get an appropriate diagnosis even in the midst of all this increasing awareness (2013), and still it was a battle to get all the “experts” on the same page. A generation ago, he would have been overlooked, diagnosed with something else, or not at all. “Bright but unpleasant” maybe. And he would have been worse off for it, I have no doubt.
But my bigger issue with the “epidemic/emergency” narrative is that it’s flat-out insulting. Even when the alarmist moms leave mention of vaccines out of their rallying-cry, they’re still pushing this notion that Autism is a disease, a horrible thing that crops up and eats people (read: through vaccines) and must be stopped. They talk about how much suffering Autistic people endure because of their Autism, they talk about what a drain Autism represents on public resources—the costs to educate, medicate and maintain them.
As a mother of a person with Autism I can speak for exactly one person with Autism (and that only a step removed, and in translation), but the suffering that my son and our family have experienced firsthand is not caused by Autism. His (and our) suffering comes from misunderstandings; it comes from prejudice and a dearth of resources and opportunities, things which result in the marginalization of an otherwise healthy and happy person who happens to be different from his peers.
Likewise, when these alarmists bemoan the “astronomical costs” of Autism to our communities, our schools, what they’re really saying is that we should protect the status quo—that cookie cutter approach to education and society at large—rather than invest in new paradigms, new ways to teach and employ and treat and engage, ways that recognize and embrace neurological diversity. They are saying people with Autism are too much trouble, and need to be snuffed out. That’s ableism, at best (although I think there’s another word for it)—and yeah. I have a problem with that.