Clarifying the “Recovery from Autism” Debate


Image by natalia & gabriel via Flickr

There seems to be a lot of confusion in posts I’ve been reading lately, about “recovery from autism”. Specifically, they confuse together the questions of whether recovery is possible, with the question of whether it is something we should want. The two questions can – and should – be dealt with separately. Both questions are complicated by issues of identity, terminology and definitions.

The question of whether recovery from autism is possible, first requires you to define autism, which is hardly an uncontentious task. There is the diagnostic criteria, which essentially requires professional observation of behaviours and challenges. If that is all autism is – observational behaviours – then it makes sense to talk of recovery from autism, since behavioural interventions can lessen (or more contentiously, “hide”) those behaviours. Behavioural intervention is unlikely to be sufficient to carry a child completely out of the spectrum though, since communication problems are part of the diagnosis.

But is that really all that autism is? If so, why talk of genetics, why take blood tests, and map the autistic brain? Why talk of how the autistic mind sees and thinks in pictures, in a way fundamentally different from a neurotypical mind? Are these considerations only relevant to the debate when they manifest in autism (as behaviour); when they may otherwise be considered “benign”?

Perhaps recovery from autism – as corrected behaviour and communication – means the autistic mind has essentially being rewired. Or, as I introduced earlier, perhaps the recovery is only an observation; that the child has learnt to think about every move and word before revealing their natural inclinations – to essentially hide their “true selves”.

I want to clarify here that I am trying to raise these oft-unspoken questions and assumptions in this debate. I am not (at this point) suggesting answers. Similar deep and unavoidable issues arise for that other key question in the recovery debate; whether we should even seek recovery from autism (independent of its possibility).

Is autism so central to a person’s identity, that trying to get them to recover from autism, is to try to fundamentally change who they are? Is autism just a part of a person’s identity, and yet such an important part that again, to try to cure it is to try to destroy some central part of that person? Perhaps we should be celebrating autism and the uniqueness it adds to the neurodiversity of humanity. Perhaps we should be insisting that it is not the autistic people who should recover, but society which must cure itself of these negative, intolerant attitudes towards difference.

Or are those “feel-good” attitudes – this talk of tolerance and acceptance – the real danger to the neediest of autistic people? Does that just make it even harder to get desperately needed funding and support? Is it perhaps a form of denial – not just of an individual having autism, but of “autism” as a condition at all. There is a significant movement of people who believe autism is just another word for bad parenting, or a type of personality like any other, there is a danger of feeding that movement depending on how we approach the recovery debate.

Throw into the mix issues of politically correct terminology, debates about the merits of intensive behavioural interventions (like ABA), or biomedical interventions, hidden agendas, and profiteering from therapies, and you have a right mess on your hands.

These multi-issues don’t mean the topic of recovery is too hard, or not worth discussing. Indeed, it throws into sharp relief the practical importance of therapies, attitudes and definitions. It is because of those important aspects, that it’s worth taking a step back and spelling out assumptions, but more specifically, of spelling out exactly what aspect of the debate is been addressed. Talking at cross purposes just furthers confusion and bad-blood, rather than progressing the debate.

This entry was posted in Attitudes to Autism, Recovery from Autism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Clarifying the “Recovery from Autism” Debate

  1. KWombles says:

    I think one of the most frustrating things about the online autism community can be that failure to step back and consider how people are defining and using terms. Most misunderstandings seem to be a function of the person reading NOT doing so carefully, attentive to how the writer is defining the terms.

    Great post. 🙂

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