Autism: Is it a Disability or Not?

Autism: Is it a Disability or Not?In earlier times, autism was an almost unheard of disease. Those of us born in the 1960s, 1950s, and earlier may never have encountered a person that we knew had autism during our entire academic career. Yet many of us now have children who have received this diagnosis. With 1 out of every 150 babies now being diagnosed with autism, we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that if we ignore it, the whole problem will go away.

And a problem it is. Autism brings a variety of symptoms, including failure to communicate, being obsessed with one’s own world, being unwilling or unable to participate in everyday activities, and a wide variety of physical symptoms. Just as the symptoms can vary, so does the severity; some individuals with autism will be unable to function on their own in any capacity, but others will go on to raise families.

Some people with autism spectrum disorders have mental retardation. Many, however, do not. There are two widely known types of autism: Kanner’s autism, which is what most people think of when they hear the word “autistic”, and Asperger’s autism, which is marked by a higher IQ range and a number of obsessions, typically with computers, transportation, or technology. Asperger’s is occasionally referred to as “geek syndrome” and people diagnosed with Asperger’s may refer to themselves as “Aspie’s”.

Does it sound like a social club, with secret handshakes and passwords? In a sense, it is; autism is a world that 149 out of every 150 of us will never enter. Rates of Asperger’s autism are reported to be skyrocketing in the Silicon Valley, where geeks marry geeks and produce little geeks. That’s not to say that all geeks are Aspie’s, and but nearly all Aspie’s are geeks.

With the gamut of symptoms ranging from “Rainman” behaviors to behaviors that we might expect from Albert Einstein or Bill Gates, the typical ‘absent-minded professors’, with IQs from low to high and everything in between, and with a wide variety of physical issues ranging from digestive disorders to tissue connectivity problems, it is difficult to come up with the portrait of “an autistic”.

Perhaps that is the whole point of this editorial. There is not one autism, and there is certainly not one cause. The suspected causes are as varied as the presenting signs and symptoms. You can’t tell someone is autistic by looking, and they may or may not be willing or able to tell you if you ask. People with autism may seem mildly eccentric and withdrawn, becoming animated only when their “specialty” is discussed, or they may be prone to banging their heads in frustration.

At the same time, it seems simplistic to point out that not all head-bangers are autistic, just as not all autistic persons are head-bangers. Indeed, not all autistic persons perceive they have a disability. To many Aspie ways of thinking, the rest of the world wastes a great deal of potentially productive time on ridiculous pastimes like skiing, watching television, or sleeping. Why sleep, when you could be exploring the inner layers of a dog’s toenails under a high-powered microscope?

For now, educating individuals with autism is a challenge, and it is expensive. Individuals with autism need specialized education, whether they have Kanner’s or Asperger’s. But the reality is that we cannot afford to deny 1/150 of our population the right to a good and appropriate education. And consider why we would want to. Public figures who have confessed that they have a diagnosis of autism include a Nobel Laureate in economics, a stunning number of authors, artists, singers; and a number of musicians, including Peter Tork of the Monkees.

The time has come to consider whether a diagnosis of autism is truly a guarantee of disability. Current information suggests that it is not. In fact, being autistic may allow some individuals to devote their lives to their work, something that many of us truly wish we were in a position to do. For now, then, autism may legally be a disability — but in reality, it can be an asset to both the individual, and to society. We need to celebrate difference, and try to understand that different abilities may not be dis-abilities.