Promoting autism awareness presents us with a confounding irony: that autism’s descriptions can be as mysterious as its causes.
Its many forms make it difficult to recognize. A generation ago, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) specified several conditions: classic autism, childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD), pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger’s syndrome–among others.
Perhaps in an attempt to emphasize the relationship among these conditions, the DSM-5 in 2013 merged the different forms of autism into a single diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The manual included descriptors for severity: mild, moderate, and severe. Ironically, this consolidation has only caused more confusion.
On one end of the spectrum, severely autistic people cannot speak and require continual supervision and care. On the other, some highly-functioning individuals can work around their impairments and show only faint traces of eccentricity. Across the entire autism spectrum exists a rich diversity of people whose traits render them as distinct from each other as all human beings are.
But, according to the current diagnostic framework, a single name encompasses this vast range.
Obvious hardships mark the lives of those whose autism renders them nonverbal. More subtle difficulties, however, may lurk for those who have moderate or mild ASD. Autism in all its forms is a neurological impairment affecting sensory processing, emotional responses, and communication. This can seriously impair how people with autism perceive the world and interact with it. And this, in turn, can have profound implications for social interaction–an essential component of our humanity.
Over time, people with autism will inevitably draw attention based on their differences. Those with moderate autism–whose childhood speech delay and visibly atypical traits are clearly apparent–will often elicit sympathy from a decent majority who will make allowances and offer support. An unkind minority, however, will continually loom, ready to inflict cruelty and harm. People with moderate ASD would seem, then, to require the most immediate attention, awareness, and protection among our general population.
But we must also consider the seemingly unlikely plight of the mildly autistic They seem so normal but for a few quirks; if they would only make this adjustment or that, say neurotypical people, they would fit in all the better.
All of this would only begin to explain the experience of those on the autism spectrum, many of whom–though not all–can find themselves at odds with social and societal norms.
Emotions are also complicated for a person on the autistic spectrum, as feelings can at times seem remote or inaccessible to such an individual, while in reality they exist several layers beneath a deceptive surface, complicated by an intensity few would suspect and a by a complexity that makes even basic emotions difficult for many people with autism to manage and understand.
According to the CDC, roughly one in 44 children are diagnosed with ASD. A 2020 Rutgers University study, suggests that this represents perhaps only three-quarters of the total number of children meriting such a diagnosis. Less reliable estimates exist for adults, but we might predict similar figures.
And still, none of this explains autism; it merely hints at its characteristics and researchers’ attempts to trace it. Its origins invoke a whole separate set of questions, but we will come to those later.
We may do well first to consider the grotesque dimensions our humanity has taken on in the 6,000 years since farms and city-states first appeared in the world. From a global population of less than 100 million, we have now overrun the planet with over seven billion of ourselves.
Within this context, psychology emerged roughly 150 years ago as an empirical study. This included observation, classification, testing of hypotheses, examination of patterns, and identification of norms. Variance from norms will inevitably invite speculation and investigation. The ASD classification has emerged from this process.
The D in ASD stands for disorder, a word that applies to many psychological conditions, and one that many in the autism advocacy community dislike. Some would accuse researchers and practitioners of casting aside the humanity of people with ASD–and others with so-called disorders–by assigning such a cold, clinical label.
But some researchers are turning their inquiry in a more humanistic direction. And they are asking some intriguing questions.
Considering the social models of our species from tribal prehistory to the industrialized, digitized present, could a neurological profile that makes a person perceive the world in a richer and more profound manner possibly enrich the lives of those in his or her midst? How many of history’s prophets, artists, scientists, composers, and poets would be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder today? Could societies through the millennia have owed their survival to the insight, hope, imagination, creativity and guidance of their neurodivergent members?
And, disconcertingly, has the human community that once advanced itself on ideas from divergent thinkers now come to look upon such individuals as an inconvenience? As a nuisance? As mentally ill?
In short, has our modern society pathologized its visionaries?
Some recent research has indeed investigated whether neurodivergence has beneficially and materially influenced the development of the human race and human society. According to these studies, it has. More revelations will come.
Meanwhile, we must credit the sciences of psychology and psychiatry with having taken up the study of the human mind and the care of those who suffer. We must also understand that scientific understanding of the human psyche in general–and of the autism spectrum in particular–continues to evolve.
The incomplete explanations at present merely reflect ongoing work. Let’s watch it unfold.
Photo by Polina Kovaleva of Pexels.